Afghan Star

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Afghan Star
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Everyone wants to be a star and this is no different in a country that has suffered civil war, Soviet invasion and Taliban oppression for decades. After the American intervention following 9/11, Tilo TV took a page from our own “American Idol” and scoured the land to find contestants who want to sing and become an “Afghan Star.”

On the surface, as things start out, “Afghan Star” looks to be a lighthearted doc that shows how freedom is changing the face of Afghani society. Tilo TV, the first commercial television in post-Taliban Afghanistan, conceived the talent search program, a la “Idol,” to scour the country to find contestants to sing on national TV. 2000 entrants - an impressive number considering this is a war-torn, Fundamentalist Muslim nation where the ban on singing in public was lifted only in 2004 - vie for the coveted title and $5000 prize, including, incredibly, four woman, a concept unheard of a scant five years ago when the oppression of the Taliban was listed.

I expected this first-timer by documakers Havana Marking to follow the expected lines as the contestants are met – 10 are focused upon, though the filmmakers do show the winnowing down process of the 2000 to the finalist. In a society-shaking text-messaging vote from all over Afghanistan, two of the four female contestants make the final 10. It seems that the rest of this skillfully handled documentary is going to follow the finalists as they, one by one, face elimination. Record-breaking texting votes narrow the 10 down to four including, incredibly, the two women!
This is pretty exciting stuff with its rags to riches story leading to just one being named the Afghan Star and a look into Afghan culture and the changes being made. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Helmer Marking takes the contest and launches from it to show the clash between the ingrained traditional customs and the impact that modern technology has on Afghanistan. I am not going to go into the social, political and personal issues that are raised in this insightful document that gives you so much more than the well-done look at a reality show. The rest will overwhelm you when the real reality surfaces. See it. I give it an A-.

For thirty years under Taliban rule, television screens were black and singing was deemed sacrilegious and forbidden in Afghanistan.  Now the country's first televised talent show has drawn two thousand contestants of all ages and ethnicities, including three women, two of whom make it to the top ten of "Afghan Star."

Winner of the 2009 Sundance World documentary awards for Best Film and Best Director, "Afghan Star" sounds like an entertaining look at a low rent version of "American Idol," but Havana Marking has proven very savvy in her choice of subject as its popularity in its native land proves both a galvanizing unifier and a lightning rod of conflict.  Marking follows four contestants for the three months leading up to "Afghan Star's" finale and, while there are some amusing parallels to "American Idol," it is also clear Glambert would risk stoning had he been performing in Afghanistan.

Producer/host Daoud is from Kabul, where he believes there is more freedom than in other parts of the country.  He explains how not only is Afghanistan itself split into various ethnic groups, but even his home city is split five or six ways.  'It is rare that a Pashtun supports a Hazara except in *this* show.'  Afghan Star viewers are also practicing democracy by voting with their cell phones and some rabid fans mount campaigns by purchasing thousands of SIM cards.  But the show is also drawing severe criticism from religious leaders who decry its Western influences and immorality (men and women together!). The Taliban threatens local phone companies.  Yet Daoud counters that music used to be a part of Afghanistan's past.  Marking has unearthed an amazing bit of video of a 1980's Afghani New Wave band fronted by a woman to prove not only his point, but to show how backwards the country has become in ensuing years.

The four contestants we follow are very different. Rafi from Mazar e Sharif is slick, has Hollywood looks and loads of female fans.  It is odd to see Burqa wearing women shooting snaps of him on their cell phones when he appears in public.  When asked about the vote, Rafi contends that 'people just want a good voice,' an irony when his is compared to classically trained Hazara singer Hameed's.  Twenty-five year-old Lima is from Kandahar, the country's most religious area, and is taking quite a bold risk to compete for the $5,000 prize money while twenty-one year-old Setara dreams of becoming a famous pop star.  The heavily made up Setara dares to dance on stage, her head scarf slipping down, and she is accused of being a whore and receives death threats.

The show itself, while obviously modeled on Idol, has low production values and host Daoud doesn't torture his contestants like Ryan Seacrest does, but as the show counts down a real suspense is built.  Fans go crazy, glued to televisions on Friday night.  One young woman demonstrates how to build a TV aerial with wire and rocks.  The international press descends to cover the mounting hysteria.  After the winner is announced, Marking provides updates on her four that prove more surprising than the show's final outcome.  "Afghan Star" is a winner of its own, a complex look at a country scrambling out of the dark ages.

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