Following Crazy Girls, this is the second documentary this year to focus on a Pop Idol type show in a foreign country and their battle with the local government that is trying to shut them down. At the end of Crazy Girls we learn that the Chinese government was successful in censoring the show for being too popular. Afghanistan has always been uniquely famous for its inability to be dominated, so despite attempts by The Taliban to blow up cell phone towers (making voting impossible) the ending here isn’t quite as depressing.
Afghan Star also has the distinction of being the more disciplined of the two films. Director Havana Marking has made a modest picture that attempts to say big things about the state of our world. Too much time, sadly, is spent on the mindless yakking of her subjects and not enough time is spent nurturing the story engine that could have provided so much more. That said, Marking still makes a persuasive case that the best remedy for Afghanistan’s addiction to violence is a steady diet of celebrity aspirations.
As in Spellbound, the gold standard for competition-based documentaries, Marking picks a few contestants who are competing on Afghan Star (their name for the TV show) and follows them on their journey. Things get off to a pretty boring start. Lots of footage is lifted directly from Tolo TV, comprising the actual broadcast of the show. The contestants are also interviewed in pool halls, beauty salons, and at the zoo. They talk about their lives and dreams. One female expresses concerns about the Taliban but for the most part these kids are totally wrapped up in themselves.
Then with one scene Marking pivots the film and soon we are embroiled in a debate about the role of dancing in an Islamic country and what the consequences should or shouldn’t be. It all starts when one of the female contestants, Setara, is voted off the show and used her farewell song to dance a little jig (the horror). Now everything is deadly serious. Moral outrage fills the screen. Marking has no problem finding oodles of people to explain to the camera that her dancing is indicative of her "looseness." A scary guy with a beard puts out a tape condemning the action. He comes just short of calling for her head, but Setara gets the message and is forced into hiding.
It is extremely sad to see Setara’s own people – commoners like her – claiming that she deserves to die simply because she should have known better. Conversely, it is very exciting to see the way that art, even if it’s this one cheesy TV show, can enhance the lives of so many. One of the show’s producers states that Afghan Star helps promote democracy and it is a hard point to argue with. In the West we are used to our technologies being used against us by the government, but with this film, and the recent role Twitter has played in the Iranian election, we’re forced to remember that sometimes the opposite is true.
However, all the moral relativity in the world can’t excuse away a cultural norm of killing a person for dancing. This turn towards exploring the serious side effects of self-expression in an oppressive society certainly boosts the film but not enough to save it. Afghan Star is relevant and insightful, but unfortunately more often it just seems lost.
Director: Havana Marking
Runtime: 87 Minutes
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films