In a country struggling to rebuild, four citizens shoot for their dreams pop culture-style.
Dir. Havana Marking, 2008, 88 min
We take American Idol for granted. It’s melded into the background noise of our popular culture, just one more element of the omnipresent lust for every man, woman, and child to seize their fifteen minutes of fame. In his (sadly disappointing) new film God Bless America, Bobcat Goldthwait has his protagonists gun down the contestants on the show as a form of social criticism (it makes sense in context). It never occurred to me that, in a different cultural context, something similar to Idol could be revolutionary.
Afghan Star follows the third season of the eponymous television show, an Idol-like singing contest in which average people compete for the “Afghan Star” title, and a five thousand dollar prize. This kind of series means something very different to the people of Afghanistan than it does to us. Under Taliban rule, music was banned, which goes a long way to show how cartoonishly evil those guys were. Since the US occupation, personal freedoms have seen some expansion in the country, and the relaxation of government strictures and media control allowed for the creation of TV stations, and consequently Afghan Star.
The show has tapped a nerve with the Afghan public. A third of the population tuned in to watch the season finale shown in this film. For a people long repressed, such public exhibitions of emotion must be exhilarating. But not all is well; a tug-of-war between progress and religious fundamentalism plagues the nation, and it filters even into something as innocuous as a TV show. And yet the show is able to bridge other boundaries, especially ethnic ones. This doc is a terrific showcase of how art can aid society.
These social issues are brought to the fore in the film’s four main characters, the contestants who have made it to the final round of the competition. Setara is eager to break free of the restrictions placed on her as a woman, and performs acts that are daring by Afghan standards. She faces harassment and danger for her bravery, and she was my favorite by far. Rafi is the most traditionally “pop” of the group, young and pretty, and he wants nothing more than to ignore politics and inspire people. Lima suffers under an even greater religious burden than Setara, and hopes that the prize money can earn her a better life. And then there’s Hameed who, as a member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group, becomes an inspiration.
What’s funny is that, seeing as how this is an entire season of a TV show compressed into one film, you may find yourself rooting for a favorite among the contestants. I admired Setara’s pluck, but I can see cases for any one of them to be considered the most worthy to win. That’s only on a character level, though; my musical acumen, already low, is completely useless when judging singing in a foreign language. The doc is masterful at building such a rich, sympathetic cast of characters, and not just within the show. Behind the scenes, producer Daoud has to juggle filming logistics with political pressures, and he’s just as much a dreamer as the singers. All of these people are trying to uplift themselves and their country through music.
Fortunately, none of the cheap emotional tweaks that you’d expect to get from reality television seep into the film. It earns the sense of suspense, empathy, and joy you feel for the protagonists. Afghan Star is a lovely little film, one that taps into the viscerally simple way that music affects us. It’s almost enough to make you want to tune in to our own American Ido– wait… no. Why would I ever do that. Never mind. Anyway, this is a great documentary.