“Afghan Star” - Havana Marking (2009)

The freedom to express oneself is the most basic social right, and it is the lynchpin that holds an effective society together. So it is natural that oppressive, authoritarian groups always seek to remove that right from the people. British director-producer Havana Marking’s documentary, Afghan Star is ostensibly about a “Pop Idol” TV talent show in Afghanistan, but what makes the film interesting is its theme about self-expression. In Afghanistan, as in Iran today, there is a significant social mass that wishes to stifle all forms of independent expression. As Marking’s film demonstrates, this ignorant and stubborn mass, mostly men, comprises more than just the Taliban.

The story of the film follows the fortunes of four singers who seek the top prize in the nation-wide pop-singing context, named “Afghan Star”. Of the 2000 initial contests, only three of them are women, but two of these women are among the four principal contestants followed, and they all make it to be among the final seven. All these people want to do is sing songs, and that simple desire seems to have electrified the whole country, because by the time of the final show, 11 million people (one-third of the population) are watching it on TV, despite the great poverty of the nation (world’s fifth poorest nation).

The way contestants are selected for progression to the next stage is by simple vote via an SMS message from a mobile phone. This simple form of democracy, which places men and women, rich and poor, on an equal footing, is something that the conservative elements find alarming. The TV station, Tolo TV, is threatened by backward, conservative Islamic Ulema, and the entire wireless cell-phone network is threatened with sabotage by the Taliban.

Given Afghanistan’s varied ethnic makeup, it is natural that the separate ethnic groups will support contestants from their own group. So the four people followed in the film are various groups and regions:
  • Rafi, with his pop-star mannerisms, is from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and seems to be Tajik
  • Hameed is a classically-trained musician from the Hazara ethnic communty, which is a Persian Shi'ite group from central Afghanistan that has frequently suffered at the hands of its more populous neighboring communities. The message in his songs is national inclusiveness and unity.
  • Setara Hussainzada is from Herat and probably also Tajik. Traditional Afghani music has always been influenced by Hindustani music, and her music reflects this flavor.
  • Lima is Pashtun and from Kandahar, an extremely conservative area. She secretly studies music with a teacher who has to sneak over to her house in fear of his life. Her choice of songs and her singing style is more conservative and restrained than that of Setara.
Much of the film follows the mounting excitement generated by the Afghan Star TV show, which in 2008 was only in its third season. The idea of singing on TV may seem natural to outside audiences, but this was a radical event in Afghanistan and generated national pride, enthusiasm, and outrage, depending on the outlooks of the people watching. Since more than 60% of the Afghanistan population is under the age of 21, the bulk of the country was innocently enthusiastic. These people had been living for years under the Taliban-imposed Islamic “Dark Ages”, and their only knowledge of the country’s past proud music tradition, which did include women singers, would only have been gained from stories told to them.

The Tolo TV station personnel are all very young men, who seem to be learning how to make TV shows on the job. Some of them are shown to be learning TV production from books acquired from overseas. (Don’t laugh, I graduated from a well-known film school and learned more useful information from those kinds of books than I did from my instructors.)

The narrative flow of Afghan Star is interesting, because the director makes effective use of stark intertitles to emphasize important points and effectively punctuate the drama. The camera work is pretty good, considering that the filming conditions must have been both difficult and very dangerous. One notable aspect of the film is the presentation of women without head-covering. Although women probably don’t normally wear head-covering in their homes, the presentation of such on a film would normally not be allowed in Iran, and must have been made the Islamic oppressors in Afghanistan quite unhappy.

But something even more notable happened during the filming of Afghan Star, and it essentially altered the original storyline that must have been in the minds of the producers. When the finalists numbered only seven, Setara was eliminated from the group and thus was given the opportunity to present her final number to the camera before bowing out. In a glorious moment of human self-expression and passion, she lowers her headdress and begins not only singing, but also moving slightly to a few modest dance steps. This simple, and by-our-standards modest, action generates a national outcry for her head. When she wants to return to her home in Herat, her family is even unhappy for her to come.

We don’t know if any men in Afghanistan stood up to defend Setara’s modest and entirely innocent singing, but the film doesn’t record any. Instead, there are a number of swinish statements made by men saying that she is a whore and that she should be killed: she is branded as “un-Islamic”.

Director Marking documents this gripping episode, but then drops the thread and continues with the talent-show countdown. Eventually Rafi is chosen as the winner. This is ironic, because he probably won (over Hameed) on the basis of his pretty-boy appearance than on his singing voice. He looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and soccer-star Christiano Ronaldo, and he may have garnered a significant number of votes from women. This is ironic, because probably most of the women who voted for him were unaware that Rafi expressed the same kind of repulsive, pig-headed criticism of Setara that seeks to deny all women the simple right to sing and dance in public.

At the end of the film, it is reported that both Lima and Setara have received death threats and need protection. Setara, however, has defiantly continued her quest and has made a recording. The actual Afghan Star TV producer and host, Daoud Sediqi, has fled the country and is seeking asylum in the US. Afghanistan, like Iran, has a long way to go before its people can enjoy the basic rights of self-expression.

Though the film is interesting and worthwhile, Marking missed an opportunity when she edited the it. She should have re-oriented the storyline and focused the conclusion more explicitly on the real star. Setara, whose name actually does mean “star”, was the real "Afghan Star" of this film.


Unknown said...

My sentiments exactly. Thanks for the illuminating and insightful review.

Fenwoman said...

I loved the documentary. What struck me, as a woman, was young men, who dressed in modern western clothes, and had modern western things like mobile phoned, uttered comments about Setara, sayiong that she should be killed, simply because she showed her hair and danced a little. Modern clothes but medieval mentality seem to be a strange contrast.What's the problem with these Muslim men? Are they animals, driven by instinct only, that their passions become uncontrollable at the sight of a woman's hair? Thank God I live in an enlightened and modern society in Europe where enlightened and intelligent men, do not feel threatened by their women.

Sufi said...

Just saw the film, such a great job, thank you!

Do we know how Setareh is doing today? Any ways to contact her or her family? I was in Afghanistan for few years back and I saw the cue for one of the auditions. I always wondered how did that went.. amazing!

Keep up the good work! :)