Afghan Star

The Herald: September 2010

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Afghan Star

Directed by Havana Marking

In one of the scenes of Afghan Star, director Havana Marking presents us with a stark reminder of Afghanistan’s liberal past – footage from a university campus from the 1980s shows a bevy of college beauties (dressed in skirts no less) striding confidently to their classes with their male counterparts. Their hair beautifully coiffured, they resemble a flock of richly-hued birds. Marking drives the point home with additional footage from a student concert – a woman in an electric pink jacket sways onstage, surrounded by musicians. The epitome of 80s style, she could be one of hundreds of American or European singers you see in MTV’s flashbacks of pop music’s past. Yet this woman is a distant memory for most Afghanis, scratched out by thirty years of war and hard-line Taliban rule and bans on music, singing and dancing in public. Afghan Star takes a look at Afghanistan’s changing cultural landscape as the country grapples with a democratic system and its freedoms.

‘Afghan Star’ is a Pop Idol-like reality series that captures the imagination of millions across the country – 11 million Afghanis (a third of the population) tuned in to watch the finale. The organizers, Tolo TV, are optimistic that the show will convince a new generation of Afghanis to move ‘from guns to music’. 2000 hopefuls (including 3 women) audition for the chance to win the title of Afghan Star and a cheque of $1000. The auditions are similar to what we’ve seen on American Idol – frustrated judges, confident contestants who are truly unable to carry a note, jubilant contestants who make it through successive rounds – but ‘Afghan Star’ brings a frisson of danger to the table. One contestant, Lima, is forced to hide all music instruments and her computer in her house in Kandahar in case of raids by the Taliban. Her music teacher visits her secretly, smuggles instruments into her house and charges her an exorbitant amount due to the danger he is placing himself in.

The documentary charts the 3-month period between regional auditions and the finals in Kabul. We are given unprecedented access to all contestants and their families. Director Marking is not interested in the contestants’ vocal abilities (for a documentary about a singing competition, the contestants musical prowess is relatively low in priority). She focuses instead on the ethnic delineations between contestants and the subsequent effect on voters. We find that Hameed, a young musician and classically trained singer from the Hazara tribe who makes it to the top 3, has become a hero for his historically-maligned ethnic group (many of whom were massacred by the Taliban). His supporters paper his hometown with posters urging others from the Hazara tribe to vote for him, hiring cars and loudspeakers encouraging voters to send in SMS votes and going door-to-door to ensure support. Lima unbelievably finds members of the Taliban sending hundreds of votes in for her as they identify with her Pashtun background, while the third finalist Rafi, from Mazar-e-Sharif, inspires his supporters to sell their cars in order to buy hundreds of SIM cards to text in votes.

A fourth contestant, Setara, a 21-year-old girl from Herat, almost steals the show when she is voted off. Setara’s swan song before she leaves the show draws gasps from the audience and other contestants as she gives in to the music, swaying to the beat of the song, letting her headscarf slip. These few seconds of dance draw the ire of the Islamic Council and those in Setara’s hometown. She is branded ‘loose’ and in the wake of death-threats, is forced to go into hiding in Kabul.

It is through Setara’s story that Marking reveals the nature of Afghani society today – while more than 60% of its population today may be under 21 years of age, Afghanistan straddles the strictly conservative (bordering on extreme) and liberal mindset that allow shows such as Afghan Star to flourish, but with certain rules that must be adhered to.