If you think Simon Cowell of “American Idol” is a harsh critic, imagine what it would be like to be judged by a Taliban warlord. That’s the fate for contestants vying for the top slot in the television show “Afghan Star.” They not only put their egos on the line, they sometimes put their lives at risk.
“Afghan Star,” Afghanistan’s wildly popular “American Idol” knock-off, is the subject of Havana Manning’s new film (winner of both the World Cinema Documentary and Directors Award at Sundance). The film captures the tensions that arise from living in a society where a tongue-lashing can be a prelude to a real lashing, and character assassination is sometimes carried to literal and lethal extremes.
In a country where 60 percent of the population is under 21, “Afghan Star” draws huge audiences. Eleven million Afghans (one-third of the country) tune in—from well-appointed living rooms in Kabul to village shacks where scores of farm families gather around a single, shared screen. “For many, this is the first time they have encountered democracy,” the filmmakers note. Of course, this “TV democracy” is only available to citizens who possess a cell phone, but because the contestants represent a rainbow of regions and ethnic groups, the program has became a uniquely unifying experience where rivalries are settled on the basis of drumbeats and ballads.
After 30 years of war and Taliban rule (a six-year ban on music only ended in 2001), the show’s producer explains his goal is “to move people from guns to music.” As he recalls a time when Afghanistan had “a very beautiful culture . . . art, music, movies,” the screen blossoms with poignant clips from 1980 Kabul showing smiling young women strolling about in shirts and blouses without headscarves. In another clip, a young female singer fronts an electric rock band at a Kabul University concert.
During the four months Marking’s crew spent in Kabul, 2,000 people auditioned and, for the first time, three of them were women. Two of them reached the finals, a development that delighted the country’s women and infuriated the patriarchy.
The film follows four finalists. Rafi, a good-looking19-year-old from Mazar e Sharif wants to entertain people and make “their souls to come alive again.” Hammeed is a classically trained singer from the country’s most exploited ethnic group, the Hazara. Lima is a 25-year-old woman from tradition-bound Kandahar who practices her music undercover for fear of antagonizing her conservative neighbors. Finally, there is Setara, a young Herati woman whose drive for stardom will eventually put her life at risk.
While her Bollywood gumption endears her to legions of Afghan girls, Serata becomes a lightening rod for traditionalists. When she fails to make the final round, Serata is devastated. Invited to perform one last song, she sends shock waves across the nation. In a gesture that is both brave and foolish, she begins to dance, swaying her hips and dropping her headscarf to whirl about with her uncovered hair billowing.
Outraged officials threaten to ban the program, death threats pour in and Serata is forced into hiding. Even her fellow contestants express shock. “She can sing but she should not have danced,” says Rafi. “This will turn out bad.” Lima insists she never would have danced, “even if they paid me thousands.” (Ironically, Lima was also forced into hiding because of death threats.) Cabinet member (and former warlord) Ismail Khan condemned Serata’s performance as an “insult and degradation” and, in dozens of street interviews, the condemnation appears to be universal, culminating in one young man’s observation: ”She brought shame to the Herati people. She deserves to be killed.”
When the announcement of the final winner triggers widespread celebrations, Manning uses the opportunity to inject an ironic counterpoint—a dozen clips of men dancing wildly in public without any fear of condemnation. Meanwhile the demand for reform continues to stir. In the studio audience for the final showdown, many of the women removed their headscarves. “When they play the national anthem, we have to wear our scarves,” one woman tells the camera. “The rest of the time, I try not to wear it.” Then she smiles and flashes the victory sign.
The filmmakers have provided these links to organizations working to aid the Afghan people: Afghan Aid (www. afghanaid.org.uk), Aschiana (www. aschiana.com), and Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org).
AFGHAN STAR: YOU CAN SING BUT YOU CANNOT DANCE
Opens Friday, Aug. 21 at Shattuck Cinemas.