Afghan Star


Written by Kieron Monks
29 Monday 29th June 2009

Say ‘Pop Idol' to a reasonably well informed person and chances are you'll get a pitying look. But if you're a long suffering Afghan, in a country where dancing has been a criminal activity until 2004, pop can be worth dying for.
Havana Marking's feature debut charts the final few rounds of Afghanistan's inaugural ‘Afghan Star' contest. In it 2000 hopefuls, including three women, croon their way towards a dream that could never have been realised under Taliban rule. But as the show's producer confidently asserts, "The Taliban is finished".

Rising star Lema wows the crowd

If only that were true. The old forces of conservatism still hold great power and by throwing a western element into the mix, Tolo TV have stirred a hornets nest. At a pre-show party for popular contestant Rafi Nabzaazaa, one of his friends voices a common opinion. "We see what young people have in other countries. Why should we be any less than that?"

The sudden freedom Afghan Star unleashes is perfect documentary material, as a nation wakes up to democracy via text vote, women's liberation and best of all, music. In a country where 60% of the population are under 21, the phenomenon dwarfs Britain's first reaction to Big Brother. One man sells his car to buy extra sim cards to vote with and young people flee their homes to help with contestants' campaigns. At live recordings the crowds have to be beaten back by the police as excitement boils over. But while the momentum builds, so too does unease at how readily an Islamic country has rushed to embrace Western decadence.
Matters come to a head through the actions of Satara, one of the show's few women, who remains until the final round. Throughout her progress there are misgivings over a women so prone to dancing on stage, cavorting "like a whore" as some put it.
A trickle becomes a flood when she reacts to being voted off by dancing her way through a saucy final number, even removing her headscarf. It is a scene of mind-blowing power to watch a young girl virtually signing her death warrant with a few small shimmies. In the film's most dramatic sequence we feel the nation turn on her. She is condemned by her fellow contestants and on the streets there are calls for her to be killed.

The incident becomes a stick to beat the show with, as it's producers come under increasing pressure from religious leaders and the Government. But Marking resists the temptation to attack an allegedly primitive culture, showing that the majority of Afghans on screen have their entire value system tied up with their conservative faith. It is too much and just plain wrong to expect them to abandon a way of life for the sake of a pop craze. They are insulted by Satara's hips and she knows exactly why she is receiving death threats.

But this is not a film dominated by violence or despair, in large part due to the music which plays such a key role. Middle-of-the-road pop sounds a hell of a lot better in Arabic and the sense of joy it brings to the people is powerful enough to make you wish Girls Aloud wore burqas. It is a remarkable achievement to derive warmth and optimism from such a trampled-on part of the world, but Havana Marking does so with conviction.
On the edge of their seats

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