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Afghan Star

Documentary Looks to Afghanistan’s Answer to American Idol

Credit: Zeitgeist Films

Above: "Afghan Star"


KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews new doc Afghan Star


The new documentary "Afghan Star" (opening September 4 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) looks to an "American Idol" style show that attracts some ten million viewers with each episode.

Sometimes pop culture can effect change in ways that governments and politicians cannot. So while the U.S. government wages a war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Western shows like "American Idol" may be making more of a difference on the average Afghan. "American Idol" is not exactly a cultural ambassador but the show has inspired an imitation in Afghanistan. The Tolo TV show "Afghan Star" takes advantage of the fact that restrictions forbidding dance, music and watching TV were lifted in 2004. And Afghan audiences -- by the millions -- are embracing the show.

Taking the format of "American Idol," the Afghan TV incarnation attracted 2000 male contestants and 3 females from all over the country. The show¹s producers hope that the diversity of the contestants will have a positive effect on the culture. The show's head of production, Massoud Sanjer says "this might affect Afghan¹s unity for long term."

The TV producers want "Afghan Star" to be a program for peace, encouraging people to trade guns for music. Well that's tall order but the show has definitely won over fans. It has also set in bold relief the tensions still simmering in Afghanistan. Some worry that cultural changes are coming too fast and western attitudes are being too readily adopted while others fear that the Taliban could regain control and come after people who have appeared on the show. The show's popularity has also gained international attention, even drawing a Time Magazine correspondent to a press conference; When the reporter asks if the diversity of the contestants will further divide the country with each ethnic faction only supporting the contestant from their region, the answer is a resounding no. The contestants insist that the show will encourage unity because they are all called "Afghan stars."

One of the contestants even sings about how "we are all one brother." But this show of solidarity and embracing of American style pop culture has its limits. So when one of the female finalists sheds her head scarf and gyrates on the stage with her hair flowing freely, she's condemned by the other contestants and later receives death threats.

Havana Marking's documentary that takes the same name as the TV show, follows four finalists as they compete for a cash prize and possible careers in entertainment. She shows how pop culture is now a factor. The film suggests that the show's request that people vote with their cell phones for their favorite performer is in a sense the first experience these young people are having with the democratic process. And like American voters, some are trying to use their money to buy votes. One of the TV show's producers reveals that there's this rich guy going to buy SIMS cards by the thousands for people voting for his favorite contestant.

Marking has a good eye for capturing the contradictions of Afghanistan. TV and pop entertainment may be new there yet the contestants already prove media savvy, with one man instructing his entourage to walk more slowly so the cameras can get better shots of them. And the young woman condemned for her outrageous behavior on the air reveals that she has never kissed a man on the lips because she's not a married woman.

My main complaint, though, is that Marking's film doesn't do enough to separate itself from the TV show. The fact that Marking takes the same name as the show points out that lack of division. Both emphasize the competition and who comes out on top. Marking needed to establish her own voice more distinctly. But she provides a fascinating window into a country that the media too often covers only in terms of the war on terrorism.

Despite the best efforts of the Taliban people never stopped singing in Afghanistan. So after ten years of repression people were ready to perform when "Afghan Star" arrived. Marking never lets us forget that the things Americans often dismiss as frivolous pop culture can be downright revolutionary in a country like Afghanistan. In case you want an insight into who might win the battle for hearts and minds, the guy who sings about brotherly love gets beat out by the one who croons a silly love song.

Companion viewing: "American Dreamz," "Towelhead," "Behind the Veil"

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