The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Afghan Star': a striking documentary look at the country we're trying to save

December 7, 2009 |  5:24 pm

If Barack Obama was looking for a way to persuade the American people that we should be sending another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he couldn't find a better weapon than the film "Afghan Star."

A British-financed documentary that is the U.K.'s entry in this year's Oscar category for best foreign-language film, "Afghan Star" follows an entire season of Afghanistan's version of "American Idol," where starry-eyed young Afghans croon pop tunes and folk ballads in the hopes of winning the hearts of millions of their fellow countrymen and women, many of them watching TV for the first time since the overthrow of the Taliban.

The film, directed by Havana Marking, a veteran U.K. journalist and TV producer, played here for a week in July after winning the directing and audience awards in Sundance's 2009 World Documentary competition. It earned a rave review from my colleague Kenny Turan and returns to L.A. this weekend, where it will play 11 a.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday at the Laemmle Sunset 5 and the Town Center in Encino.

For me, "Afghan Star" is more than just another documentary. It offers a fascinating glimpse of Afghanistan, a country that most Americans could barely find on the map and have rarely thought of, except as a faraway place torn asunder by war, terrorism and political corruption. But "Afghan Star" allows us to see another side of the country, with a special focus on how the aspirations of its young people -- 60% of the Afghan population is under 21 -- may end up having a far bigger impact on its future than its current political and military struggles.

Marking, who has made numerous trips to the country, having just completed a separate documentary about this fall's tumultuous presidential campaign, offers us a compelling insider's glimpse of the country's "Afghan Star" song contest, which turns out to have been a pivotal example of democracy in action, since it was the first time many Afghans were allowed to participate in an actual election. Even though it was simply a vote for the country's favorite pop star, it captured the imagination of the young country, with 11 million people (roughly one-third of the country's population) tuning in to watch the final episode.  

Watching the film, I was reminded of the memorable observation by Philip Roth that in America everything goes but nothing matters, where as in a more repressive culture, nothing goes but everything matters. For Afghan youth, the televised talent show (also called "Afghan Star") isn't just escapist entertainment. It's a way for the young people of the country to embrace pop music as a symbol of modernization and hope for the future. When Marking sat down to talk with me the other day on a rare visit to Los Angeles, she explained how much the simple act of seeing music on TV meant to a country still emerging from a long era where music was viewed as sacrilegious by the country's mujahadeen and banned outright by the Taliban.

"In 2001, after the Taliban were ousted, the first thing people did was bring out their radios and phonographs and start playing music," she explains. "Music became the sound of liberation and freedom. It's why young people have so eagerly embraced the show. It gave them something they could be proud of -- Afghans singing Afghan music for Afghans. You have to understand that TV is a huge lifeline, since there's virtually no entertainment in the country. It's too dangerous to go out at night, so there really aren't any concerts or clubs. 'Afghan Star' provided something you couldn't get anywhere else."

The show also makes a huge statement for Afghans by bringing together contestants of different tribal ethnicities as well as allowing the participation of several female contestants, a big deal in a country that is essentially run by a male-dominated tribal elder system. Marking likens the show's impact to that of "American Bandstand," which in the late 1950s and early 1960s allowed black teenagers to rub shoulders with white teenagers on the dance floor, which was considered a dramatic breakthrough in the early days of the civil rights movement.

The film also shows the strict limitations of free expression in Afghanistan. Marking ends up following four contestants, including two women, who end up being the show's four finalists. The women's experience makes it clear that Afghanistan has a looooong way to go in terms of gender equality. Lima, a 25-year-old woman from Kandahar, a city in the Taliban-dominated southern part of the country, has to practice in secret, with her music teacher smuggling instruments in the house.

"She is from the Pashtun tribe, which the Taliban is ethnically descended from," says Marking. "She was always under some sort of threats, but the worst threats against her came after the show was over. The Pashtuns had rooted for her, but they were the harshest critics of her afterward...." When Marking returned to the country this year she couldn't find Lima -- she suspects that she may have fled across the border to Pakistan.

The other female contestant, a 21-year-old woman from Herat named Setara, causes the biggest furor of all. She was a controversial figure, scorned by elder views while adored by young girls for her modern fashion and Bollywood-style makeup. But at the film's end she causes a storm of controversy by letting her headscarf slip and engaging in what, by Western standards, would be considered an incredibly tame series of dance moves. It would be something of an understatement to say that all hell breaks loose.

What happens to Setara after her act of rebellion? Keep reading:

Setara has to go into hiding after being denounced by a variety of critics: her fellow contestants; the country's powerful Council of Islam Scholars; and regular viewers, including one mild-mannered young boy who says she "should be killed." It's hard for a westerner, having seen decades of striptease-style antics on MTV, to understand the controversy caused by a few dance steps.

"It caused a huge furor," Marking explains. "Playing music was an act of rebellion in 2001, but for a woman to dance in public in front of a man was really going too far. It was considered a moral outrage. People were so shocked that it took a while for the shock to build up and explode. Setara simply crossed a line that you can't cross. I still can't work out whether she was being incredibly brave or just incredibly naive." 

Watching the film, you suspect that Marking was remarkably brave herself, roaming around a violence-strewn country with only the scantest pockets of modernity. As Dexter Filkins, the veteran New York Times foreign correspondent, put it the other day, "when you're in Afghanistan it often feels like you're walking around in the Old Testament." Marking admits that she was overwhelmed when she first arrived in the fall of 2007. 

"I was totally terrified," she says. "The first week I was there, they had three suicide bombings in Kabul." She quickly realized that Afghanistan has little in the way of modern pop culture. The populace has  virtually no access to American TV and movies or popular music. In fact, most of the songs heard on the show are traditional folk songs or poetry with an updated pop music accompaniment.

Afghanistan's social order remains so chaotic that when I asked Marking if anyone tried to stop her from filming, she barely suppressed a laugh. "No one gave me any trouble, but that's most because there's just no infrastructure in the country. I had a bodyguard and a translator, but I was really on my own."   

Although women in Afghanistan have few freedoms, a foreign woman like Marking actually enjoyed a huge advantage when she was out, driving around the country, doing interviews. "It was perfectly acceptable for me to be in a room with Afghan men, which an Afghan woman could never do. And I could be with the women of the country, where as a man could never be in a room alone with Afghan women."

Afghan women don't have such advantages. "The majority of women live in families where the husbands look after them and are in control of the entire structure of home life. So it's very hard, for example, for a woman to get an education. If there's any money in the family, it is given to the sons for an education, not the women."

However, when Marking was back in the country this year, covering the presidential elections, she saw glimmers of hope, even though the electoral process itself was marred by widespread ballot stuffing and intimidation. "It's not impossible to imagine, especially if the American military involvement has some success, that there could still be peace and stability in Afghanistan again," she says. "The election was a farce -- it was stolen and no one, including the U.N., did anything to stop it, presumably because they assumed Karzai would win anyway.

"But what I saw gave me hope. There was a genuine excitement and engagement in the democratic process. You saw candidates risking their lives, campaigning in dangerous parts of the country, all because they believed the country could benefit from the beginnings of democracy."

Perhaps that's what makes "Afghan Star" such an oddly hopeful film. It is ostensibly about music, not politics. But in a country like Afghanistan, where any kind of participatory democracy is something wonderful and new, what counts isn't so much the quality of the music or the contestants' singing, but the quiet optimism of their fans and followers, people who found themselves doing what almost seems like a revolutionary act -- casting a vote for someone they admire.

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