Afghan Star

Afghan Star
Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to begin post­ing some reviews of films screen­ing at Hot Docs 2009 early, hope­fully help­ing any­one attend­ing make some decisions about what to see. Afghan Star is screen­ing on Wednesday May 6 at 9:15pm at the Bloor Cinema and Friday May 8 at 11:00am at the ROM Theatre.

Afghan Star (Director: Havana Marking): The ori­ginal Pop Idol show star­ted in the UK, but has quickly spread all over the world, with American Idol and Canadian Idol being quite well known here. Though these shows often fea­ture some embar­rass­ingly bad sing­ers, they’re still quite pop­u­lar because the fans get to vote each week on who stays and who is elim­in­ated. Though we take this kind of thing for gran­ted, when the show was intro­duced to Afghanistan in 2005, it was revolu­tion­ary. People used the SMS text mes­saging cap­ab­il­ity of their mobile phones to vote, and for many young Afghanis, this was their first exper­i­ence of demo­cracy. Afghan Star fol­lows four con­test­ants from the third sea­son in the runup to the finale, and while this could be an exer­cise in super­fi­ci­al­ity almost any­where else in the world, for these young Afghani sing­ers, it’s both a polit­ical state­ment and a chance to fol­low their dreams of star­dom.

This mix­ture of the per­sonal and the polit­ical serves the film well, and title cards add any neces­sary con­text without the need for an intrus­ive voi­ceover. The dir­ector includes two male and two female con­test­ants, even while she acknow­ledges that the over­whelm­ing major­ity of con­test­ants are male. In Afghanistan, it takes a very spe­cial kind of cour­age to sing on tele­vi­sion if you’re a woman. In many parts of the coun­try, women aren’t even allowed to leave the house without their husband’s or father’s per­mis­sion, and often only if covered head to toe in the con­fin­ing folds of the burqa. Lema and Setara, the two women final­ists, are quite dif­fer­ent, even though they share the same incred­ible cour­age. Lema, look­ing much older than her stated age of 25, is from Kandahar, one of the areas of the coun­try where the Taliban seem to be mak­ing a comeback. It is so dan­ger­ous in her homet­own that her music teacher has to come to her house secretly to teach her. Although she takes incred­ible risks to pur­sue her ambi­tion, she is rather demure com­pared to the younger Setara, who seems almost reck­less in her desire to express her­self, wear­ing makeup and dress­ing in the latest fash­ions. When she is even­tu­ally voted off the pro­gram, Setara is given the chance to sing one last time for the audi­ence, and shocks every­one by uncov­er­ing her hair and actu­ally dan­cing while she sings. Even the other con­test­ants seem to think she’s done some­thing very dan­ger­ous, and indeed she is the sub­ject of death threats soon after­ward.

The two men are less con­tro­ver­sial, though both approach their battle to be named Afghan Star as a polit­ical cam­paign, recruit­ing volun­teers to hand out fly­ers and put up posters. Rafi is young and good-look­ing, and seems to appeal to many of the more lib­eral young people, espe­cially the young ladies. Hameed has a strong sup­port base among his Hazara eth­nic group, a group who have his­tor­ic­ally been sub­ject to per­se­cu­tion. But his train­ing as a clas­sical musi­cian and his singing voice also make him pop­u­lar across eth­nic lines.

Although Afghanistan has a strong musical tra­di­tion, and every­one seems to love music, it was actu­ally banned under the Taliban regime (from 1996–2001), and the new gov­ern­ment is very eager not to offend any reli­gious sens­ib­il­it­ies. In this volat­ile atmo­sphere, Afghanis like Hameed, Rafi, Setara and Lema are try­ing to fol­low their pas­sion for music while in some cases fear­ing for their lives. What makes the film so affect­ing is the very fra­gil­ity of the new­found free­dom these young people are so eager to hold onto. Many of the people inter­viewed are wear­ily resigned to deal­ing with often-abrupt changes in gov­ern­ment. The past thirty years have seen Soviet occu­pa­tion, civil war, Taliban rule, and now occu­pa­tion by US and “coali­tion” forces. It’s both sad and heart­en­ing to know that whatever hap­pens, no one will stop these men and women from singing, even if they have to do it in secret.

Official web site of the Afghan Star tele­vi­sion show

Official web site of the film


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