Afghan hopefuls risk their life to sing in an 'American Idol' spinoff that offers a window on a war-weary tribal culture.
Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
The new documentary "Afghan Star," directed by British television veteran Havana Marking, uses the TV show as a window on the entire Afghan culture.
Under Taliban control in 1996, war-torn Afghanistan banned music, dance, movies, and television. It was not until 2005 that the ban was lifted, but warlords and Islamist leaders still exert a heavy toll. When one of the four final contestants on the TV show, a sprightly 21-year-old female singer named Setara, lets her headscarf slip during her number, she is threatened and forced into hiding. Setara is the most "modern" of the contestants – she wears Bollywood-style clothes and makeup, and dances, at least by Afghan standards, with abandon. Marking follows her into her self-imposed exile as she talks about her fears for her life.
The insanity of her situation is matched by the insanity surrounding her. At one point, Marking talks to a crowd of men about Setara's supposed indiscretions. The scene is like countless MTV-style postconcert gabfests until one rather normal-looking fellow calmly states that Setara "should be killed."
The other female among the four contestants, Lima, a 25-year-old woman from the Taliban-heavy region of Kandahar, is far more traditional than Setara. She dreams of winning the $1,000 prize money and lifting herself out of poverty. Perhaps because she couldn't get the proper access, Marking doesn't explore Lima's situation as expansively as she does the other contestants, who also include young male singers Hameed and Rafi. It comes as a shock, at the end, to read in the credits that Lima was subsequently threatened by the Taliban – maybe it's because she didn't win – and is in hiding. One pays dearly for bad reviews in Afghanistan.