‘Afghan Star’ on HBO, Thursday March 18th

Watch it, by any means necessary!

A light-hearted competition such as ‘American Idol’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ acquires a whole new dimension in a country where it is against Taliban laws to sing or dance. It takes on completely different implications and results in a war-torn land where you are even forbidden to show your hair if you are a woman. Such is the premise of Havana Marking‘s documentary ‘Afghan Star’ which will air on HBO on March 18th at 9 p.m. and throughout March and April thereafter. The film enjoyed a successful theatrical release last year and was distributed by Zeitgeist Films, a company dedicated to bringing some of the best Indie releases from around the world to US audiences.

Hailed by Oprah Winfrey as “A fantastic documentary about a talent competition in a country where you would never dream such a thing is possible” and World Cinema winner at the 2009 Sundance Festival, the film documents the dramatic stories, considerable struggles and heartwarming personal victories of Tolo TV‘s ‘Afghan Star’, a contest first filmed in Kabul in 2005 which continues to rewrite the rules in Afghanistan. Yes, that same Afghanistan that has been carried into a democracy-obsessed 21st Century kicking and screaming.

Under the witty and intelligent guidance of its host and producer Daoud Sediqi, the show went on to entertain viewers from all walks of life, while gently unifying a country divided by more than thirty years of war and several rival ethnic factions. Sediqi himself “Is now in the US  - he was granted political asylum and now works as a DJ on VOA” Marking pointed out and continued that during a screening at Sundance in 2009 which received a 15 minute standing ovation he was present “And it was brilliant to see him get the recognition he deserves.”

The film closely follows the journey of four contestants from the third season of the show, each a remarkable human being in his or her own right: Rafi, a young and handsome Tajik pop star wannabe; Lema, a woman torn between her duties as a family girl and her role as a traditional Pashtun woman; Hameed, a young man who is seen as the poster hero for his own Hazara people, a tribe previously persecuted by the Taliban; and Setara, a woman from Herat with an independent spirit and courageously controversial opinions, which quickly add up to inspire contempt in the older generations of viewers. After all is said and done, it is indeed Setara — with her “Dress of Freedom” outfit and sensuous moves — who comes out the winner, though rest assured my statement does not, in any way, give the plotline away.

In her touching, truthful film, Marking steers comfortably clear of showing her own personal views and opinions, while allowing each member of the audience to pick their own favorite contestant — as I clearly did with Setara — and to observe a country in the midst of a transition. ‘Afghan Star’ is a film that leaves the viewer in awe of the resilience and joy displayed by generations of people who have only known war in their lives, only witnessed destruction in their land. It also leaves those of us who can watch the film in the comfort of our homes — sitting on a plush couch, sipping sodas and eating popcorn — just a little more thankful for all we so easily possess.

When asked about her fascination with Afghanistan, a land that most Westerners associate with war and destruction, Marking answered “My father had travelled there in the 1960s – my parents were wonderful hippies – and always talked about it. The images from that period were so epic, but all my life it was a no-go area. I always longed to go.” And about her initial draw to this project she continued “I was trying to find a project that would take me there. I had a great friend working [in Afghanistan] and she kept telling me how amazing it was. Through her I talked to a journalist who told me about Afghan Star. I knew instantly it would work, and that it was perfect for me.” 

Perhaps ‘Afghan Star’ is an allegory representing the very country both the film and the contest take place in. Afghanistan is indeed a nation torn between its youth and its traditions, its desire to modernize and its need to conform to customs. In light of the recent election crisis in Iran, the film feels like a mirror into the unifying power of music and art, staring the dividing force of politics in the face.

Poster image courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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