Judge Daryl Loomis has a song in his step and a spring in his heart...wait, call a doctor!
In Afghanistan, you risk your life to sing.
Over the past three decades, Afghanistan has suffered constant civil unrest and human rights abuse from its own people and from outsiders. Coming to power after the Soviet occupation, the Taliban immediately placed restrictions on freedoms Afghanis had enjoyed for years, all in the name of traditional Islamic values. While the group was ousted in 2001, those freedoms have only started to creep back into society. There was once a time when nearly all forms of music were officially outlawed, but the Afghani people proved their song couldn't be silenced; shown in the overwhelming success of their version of American Idol, Tolo TV's Afghan Star. Since its debut in 2005, millions have tuned in to see contestants from all over Afghanistan compete for a record contract and the pride of their regions. Havana Marking's documentary, Afghan Star, follows four of these hopefuls as they reach for the stars.
I have never seen a second of American Idol—a fact I'm quite proud of—and only vaguely recognize Simon Cowell. Yet, what seems intolerably trite in the US takes on an air of liberation when put into this Afghani context. That these people are allowed to sing in public is a victory unto itself. Broadcasting legally from an independent television station is an even bigger one. But the most striking thing is that the contest is open to everybody, regardless of culture or gender. The cultural differences in Afghanistan have caused much bloodshed, and to have people of all backgrounds next to each other in the spirit of peace (and money, of course) is fantastic. Even more important, this is not a nation known for its feminism, yet women are allowed to compete fairly alongside men.
The four contestants Marking follows are from very different places, with different cultural standards and styles of music. Two are men, two are women, and all make it to the end of the competition. The setup is, as I understand it, very much the same as American Idol, but without the harsh judgments. Winners are determined by cell phone voting, making the show a kind of nationwide exercise in democracy. People voted for singers from outside their region and gender, and that might be the biggest thing of all. It shows eyes looking past the years of animosity, beginning to see themselves as nation of equals. Afghani Star didn't cause this, but it is certainly a consequence of a nation changing its attitudes.
These changes certainly come with resistance, however. Past the show, past the empowerment, past the heartwarming characters, the real drama comes toward the end of the show's season. One of Marking's subjects is eliminated, but is given a final song to say goodbye to her fans. During her performance, she uncovers her hair, but more important than that, she dances. The condemnation of her for such a disgusting act comes swiftly. People in her home region want her dead and her life is in real and constant danger. Change is slow but, as Marking says in the interview on the disc, her bravery helps push the boundary for what women can do. Though she is threatened, she makes it easier for everybody else.
It takes a certain amount of bravery to get up on stage and accept criticism of your cruddy singing; it is something entirely different to put that same cruddy singing onstage when the politics and culture of the country make that a life-threatening event. Marking's documentary does an excellent job of showing both the charm of the people and the strength it takes for them to be on the show. It is rare in this country to see man-on-the-street interviews with Afghani citizens and the intimately close footage of life in Kabul. Afghan Star is amazing for that reason alone; that the story is so compelling makes it even better.
The DVD release of Afghan Star from Zeitgeist is not up to the label's usual standards. The image is better during the footage that Marking shot, but the clips from the show look pretty bad. Colors are accurate, but muddy overall. The sound is nice and clear, but there isn't much there for the mix to do. The only extra is an interesting fifteen minute interview with the director, in which she discusses the troubles of filming in Afghanistan and updates the audience on the status of the participants.
I doubt it could find legs in the US, but Afghan Star is an excellent documentary that shows a side of Afghanistan decidedly more human and familiar than what we are normally allowed to see.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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