Afghan Reality

Afghan Star might be missing the snarky commentary of Simon Cowell, but this Pop Idol/American Idol spin-off has offered many people in Afghanistan their first hint of democracy—by allowing them to vote for their favorite singers.

A British-produced film, also named Afghan Star, documents the struggle of four contestants to sing their way to fame, from the regional auditions all the way to the finals in Kabul. The film's widespread acclaim is evidence that pop culture is slowly creeping back into Afghanistan—but 30 years of Taliban rule cannot be overcome by one three-month singing competition.

The film's editor, Ash Jenkins, saw the cultural barriers firsthand. In an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly, he describes watching Setara Hussainzada, one of the female competitors, dance in playful rebellion against voters who gave her the boot.

Not long afterward, the government announced that all dancing on television would be illegal.

"Women aren't meant to dance in front of men, and this had a huge effect on the public at that time," says Jenkins. "... This reflects how fragile it is there."

The film shows that Hussainzada, a 21-year-old from Herat, was adored by young girls but hated by the older and more conservative generation; after all, most music was outright banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. Supporters say that the pop-star wannabes may just be the voice of a new generation, helping to usher in an era of freedom.

The documentary, directed by Havana Marking, addresses the political concerns surrounding the show—and what's at stake—in a way that is gaining acclaim. At the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, it took home both a Directing Award and an Audience Award.

Jeff Yanc, program director at the Loft Cinema, credits Afghan Star's success to the fact that it "doesn't feel super-heavy, even though it's about heavy issues." The Loft will debut the film as part of its One Hit Wonders series, which generally features films of the more eclectic or culturally diverse variety. With only one screening of the film—hence the series' name—Yanc hopes to get people more excited than they would be about a movie that runs for an entire week.

"It's important for people to show films like this," says Yanc. The fun singing side "will get people to come see something about Afghanistan where they might not otherwise."

Still, the subject matter may have some movie-goers shying away, because the word "Afghanistan" is so often seen alongside images of death and violence. But the Western view of Afghanistan may be more backward than the reality.

Jenkins says he was taken aback by the young people he met in Kabul when, in March 2008, he set up an editorial department with the people at Tolo TV, the Afghani station that produced the show.

"It was interesting to meet such young and talented people who, among war and bombs going off in the streets, were working hard to bring about a positive change to their society," he says. "I never thought I'd meet such a group of people whom I'd identify with so closely in Afghanistan."

Of course, the strict line of separation between the progressive and the conservative persists in Afghanistan. Audiences will see that the women on the show, like Hussainzada, are confronted with death threats for their participation.

Jenkins describes Afghanistan as consisting of two separate worlds. He says that attending the shows meant going from potholed streets with large military trucks into the safety of the TV-show compound (which was a former Afghani wedding hall). Once inside, there were tons of "Afghan fans screaming in support for their favorite star. It was like everything that was going on outside of the four walls of the wedding hall was a million miles away. ... That is the energy that I wanted to show through the edit."