Afghan Star (2009)

reviewed by
Mark R. Leeper


                          AFGHAN STAR
                (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Just as Americans have their television program "American Idol"" since 2005 Afghanistan has had its own popular music program "Afghan Star". It is the same and not the same. The difference is that religious fanatics like the Taliban can at any time decide singing a song is a capital crime. This is a country torn apart by those who want to bring in modern international ways and those who want to seal off the country with a fundamentalist fascism. This documentary follows four contestants on "Afghan Star" and what they experience risking their lives for a singing competition and for freedom. Havana Marking directs. AFGHAN STAR will be shown on HBO on March 18, 2010. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

It is hard to imagine an image more incongruous than "American Idol" together with the strife-ridden country of Afghanistan. Yet Afghanistan does have television and they have their own program inspired by "American Idol" (itself inspired by an early television program, "The Ted Mack Amateur Hour"). In 2005 the Tolo Television network premiered the TV show "Afghan Star". On the face of it that might not seem like such a courageous action, but everything that happens in Afghanistan is overshadowed by the extremism of Islamic fundamentalists who freely murder to enforce obedience to their fanatical interpretation of Sharia law. A television show is particularly dangerous. In 1996 it became a crime to listen to music, to dance, or to watch television. These restrictions were removed in 2004, but the three actions are still dangerous. The Taliban tentatively allows the singing, but any sign of dancing can--and in the course this documentary does--lead to more serious repercussions. Countering the fundamentalists is the overwhelming attraction of Music.

Popular music is a very strong force in the emerging Afghanistan. There are some people obsessively loyal to songs. Where else in the world would you find people explaining that music brings happiness and that it is worth fighting for? Mobs of people try to get to be the audience for the program's broadcasts. In addition, the viewing audience votes for who should win. For many in Afghanistan this is their first experience with democracy, the first time they ever could vote for anything. Some Afghanis are also being surprised to find that they are actually supporting people from other ethnic groups. People make the point that the lessons learned with the program could bring deep changes--social and political--to the country. They say they want to take the country "from the gun to the song."

Marking's cameras follow four contestants. Rafi is a handsome nineteen-year-old who says his goal is to help his people to awaken and find a little joy in life. Setara is two years older. She wants to adopt Western and Indian ways. Hameed trained to be a singer of Afghan classical music but easily made the transition to popular. He is from the persecuted Hazara minority and hopes that his popularity will help his people. Finally there is Lima. She had taken secret music lessons, which in itself could have had her killed by the Taliban. Now she also likes Western ways, but is a little more cautious than Setara.

The film is both optimistic and depressing. Afghanistan is in a state of constant change, and the viewer can only hope that it will be change for the better. This film is about a real war with real deaths that is going on in Afghanistan and one of the battlefields of that war is a pop music contest on television. I rate AFGHAN STAR a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. This film is in Pashtu, Dari, and some English, and it is entirely subtitled in English.

Film Credits: <http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1334510/>

What others are saying: <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/afghan_star/>

                                        Mark R. Leeper
                                        mleeper@optonline.net
                                        Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper
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