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Review: 'Afghan Star'

Afghan hopefuls risk their life to sing in an 'American Idol' spinoff that offers a window on a war-weary tribal culture.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2009

Contestant Lima Sahar on stage in AFGHAN STAR, a film by Havana Marking. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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A contestant on "American Idol" might risk humiliation," but a contestant on the Afghanistan "Idol" spin-off TV series "Afghan Star" could risk his or her life.

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The new documentary "Afghan Star," directed by British television veteran Havana Marking, uses the TV show as a window on the entire Afghan culture.

Under Taliban control in 1996, war-torn Afghanistan banned music, dance, movies, and television. It was not until 2005 that the ban was lifted, but warlords and Islamist leaders still exert a heavy toll. When one of the four final contestants on the TV show, a sprightly 21-year-old female singer named Setara, lets her headscarf slip during her number, she is threatened and forced into hiding. Setara is the most "modern" of the contestants – she wears Bollywood-style clothes and makeup, and dances, at least by Afghan standards, with abandon. Marking follows her into her self-imposed exile as she talks about her fears for her life.

The insanity of her situation is matched by the insanity surrounding her. At one point, Marking talks to a crowd of men about Setara's supposed indiscretions. The scene is like countless MTV-style postconcert gabfests until one rather normal-looking fellow calmly states that Setara "should be killed."

The other female among the four contestants, Lima, a 25-year-old woman from the Taliban-heavy region of Kandahar, is far more traditional than Setara. She dreams of winning the $1,000 prize money and lifting herself out of poverty. Perhaps because she couldn't get the proper access, Marking doesn't explore Lima's situation as expansively as she does the other contestants, who also include young male singers Hameed and Rafi. It comes as a shock, at the end, to read in the credits that Lima was subsequently threatened by the Taliban – maybe it's because she didn't win – and is in hiding. One pays dearly for bad reviews in Afghanistan.

Hameed is a classically trained singer whose newfound penchant for pop is a pragmatic decision – it's how you win. (Marking doesn't explore the ways in which pop corrupts classic traditions.) He's from the Hazara clan – an ethnic group that suffered under the Taliban – who canvass relentlessly on his behalf. Rafi, at 19, is the youngest of the contestants and the most teen-idol-ish. Like Hameed, he unifies his ethnic following (the people of Mazar).

The show, televised by Tolo TV, Afghanistan's largest broadcaster, is watched by 11 million Afghans – a third of the country – and Marking shows us a cross-section of families watching the show in often the most threadbare of settings. Irony of ironies: In voting via cellphone for their favorites, many young Afghans are participating in a democratically held election for the first time.

An alternate-universe quality imbues many of the events in "Afghan Star." The sunglassed slickster host of the show could be right out of "American Idol," but he speaks defiantly into the camera about standing up to the Taliban. Tolo TV goes in for heavy-duty show-biz PR, but it emphasizes that the show can "move people from guns to music." Setara sings insipid love ballads but with lyrics like "the bend of your eyebrow is like the sting of a scorpion."

Judging from this film, a pop cultural resurgence in Afghanistan seems ultimately unstoppable, even with a resurgent Taliban, if for no other reason than that 60 percent of the population is under 21. Also, this is a country, as we see again and again, that loves to sing. At the start of the film a little blind boy croons feelingly for us and then says, "If there was no music, humans would be sad." He looks ecstatically happy. Grade: A-

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