In Afghanistan you risk your life to sing. After thirty years of war and five devastating years of Taliban rule, pop culture is beginning to return to the country. Since 2005, millions have been tuning in to Tolo TV's wildly popular "American Idol"-style series "Afghan Star." Like its Western predecessors, people compete for a cash prize and record deal. More surprisingly, the contest is open to everyone across the country despite gender, ethnicity or age. Two thousand people audition, including three extremely brave women. And when viewers vote for their favorites via cell phone, it is, for many, their first encounter with the democratic process. Winner of the Directing and Audience Awards in Sundance's 2009 World Documentary competition, Havana Marking's timely and moving film follows the dramatic stories of four young finalists--two men and two women--as they hazard everything to become the nation's favorite performer. By observing the Afghani people's relationship to its pop culture, Afghan Star
is the perfect window into a country's tenuous, ongoing struggle for modernity. What Americans consider frivolous entertainment is downright revolutionary--and more human--in this troubled part of the world.
, the Sundance-award-winning documentary by Havana Marking, provides powerful evidence of how pop culture succeeds despite repression. The film chronicles the American Idol
-like television show that premiered in 2005 on Tolo TV, an independent channel in Afghanistan that has capitalized on the restrictions lifted on music throughout the country in 2004. Afghan Star
, as a television phenomenon, attracts up to 11 million viewers per episode, making it clear that it symbolizes more than a superficial pop music competition. Marking does a wonderful job of splicing political facts in among footage following four exuberant final contestants, Setara, Rafi, Hameed, and Lema, who range from ages 19 to 25. Footage of urban ruins, tattered flags, and life in poverty are carefully woven in with interviews and profiles of these singers that each explain how music is a sign of freedom to their people. Tender personal moments, such as Lema in the salon getting her make-up done, or Rafi wondering at a gorgeous tiled mosque, provide real glimpses into a mysterious world. While the focus is on the television show, many scenes unfold on the streets abroad, such as one at the Kabul Zoo, where the "only pig in Afghanistan" resides. Humor abounds throughout to illustrate a human resilience that transforms a simple pop-song competition into a political race. Each contestant, as a resident of differing regions, campaigns with posters and more to not only garner votes but unite the warring peoples of their countries. In one segment, the Tolo TV head of production explains how high the stakes really are in a country where people are finally allowed to vote with their cell phones, in relative safety. Moreover, there is added drama when one singer shows her hair and dances on stage. Straying slightly off course to follow her story, one learns of the life-threatening dangers she faces for what Americans would consider a basic right. Once one eventually begins to understand how controversial Afghan Star
is, it's astounding that this documentary was made at all. Not to mention, the music throughout this startling movie is fantastic. All the more reason to support Afghan Star
and the freedom it symbolizes. --Trinie Dalton