Afghan Star

Afghan Star (2009)

Afghan Star first published by Film4

Summary: Havana Marking’s documentary traces the reemergence of popular culture in troubled Afghanistan. 

Review: “I have to hurry this interview. There are security problems when you become famous.”

Rafi Nabzaada’s words will sound familiar to any celebrity who has ever been harassed by press or public – except that, as a contestant on Afghan Star, the risks to which Rafi alludes are a little more serious than over-enthusisatic fans or humiliation-hunting paparazzi. After all, since 1996 the ruling Taliban had introduced and enforced a strict ban on dancing, listening to music or watching TV – and although the ban was lifted in 2004, Afghanistan’s first televised talent competition is in the front line of the nation’s cultural and political wars, whose stakes are high and whose casualties risk ending up not just publicly demonised, but dead.    

Havana Marking’s film charts the impact this TV show has had on the Afghan landscape – unifying long-divided tribes, testing religious and moral limits, forging a national identity, and offering younger people (60% of Afghanistan’s population is under 21) their first taste of a democratic process in which everyone, no matter what their age, sex or ethnicity, has an equal right to vote. 

Just as importantly, the show is entertaining too, in a country where several decades of invasion, civil war and religious repression have left entertainment rather thin on the ground. And so, like Quiz Show (1994), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and even Starter For 10 (2006), Afghan Star uses the aspirations of contestants on a popular programme to mirror the hopes and fears of a particular time and place – the difference being that Afghan Star is no fanciful feature, but a documentary.    

Marking follows four rival entrants with different tribal backgrounds as they compete for the top prize, struggling not just against each other but – at least in the case of the two women – against a whole recent history of prejudice, repression and constraint. Liberal-minded Setara Hussainzada faces death threats from her own ethnic community in Herat after she dances (minimally) on stage with her hair uncovered, while the more conservative Lima Sahar from Kandahar wins the support of even the local Taliban – until, that is, she loses, risking elimination of an altogether different kind. Still, given that there were only three women amongst the two thousand people who auditioned for the show, the ascent of Setara and Lima to be amongst the competition’s last seven contestants (or, in one case, the last three) speaks volumes in itself about the new direction that Afghanistan is taking. 

The documentary also includes vox pops, filmed all over Afghanistan, about the TV programme and its contestants – and while Marking does show the depressing ease with which public distaste for a contestant can be converted into outraged cries for retribution and murder, she focuses more on the hope that the show brings for the renewal of Afghanistan’s cultural identity. The Khan family in particular, introduced as “number one fans of Afghan Star”, represent a range of enthusiastic opinion spread over several generations. The youngest duaghter dresses her dolls as Setara and Lima (“Lima doesn’t wear these sexy clothes”), and pretends to vote for Setara on her toy phone. The older daughter charmingly confuses her wish that Rafi should win with her desire to marry him. The parents, meanwhile, show photographs of their student days in the Eighties when there was co-education for men and women and “the people in Kabul were open-minded”. It is a reminder that the country’s cultural backwardness is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that, as Afghan Star‘s creator and host Daoud Sediqi puts it, “in Afghanistan, there was music in the past, and music in the future.”

Shot over four months on HD, Afghan Star at times feels as jerry-built  and ramshackle as the TV series it documents, but the compelling nature of its subject matter, Ash Jenkins’ superb editing, and the inherent thrills of a talent contest, all help this documentary gain the audience’s attention and affection. Using popular culture as a window onto the hopes and fears of contemporary Afghanistan, Marking’s winning documentary is worth making a song and dance about.    

Strap: Tracking a variety show in a newly, all-too-briefly liberated culture, Havana Marking’s documentary celebrates and laments Afghanistan’s history

© Anton Bitel