Havana Marking's documentary Afghan Star promises to re-invigorate two aspects of our world that most of us have grown weary of: the endless, bad-news slog of the military involvement in Afghanistan; and the interminable, long-past-fresh televised singing competition, be it American Idol or its myriad imitators.
Revealed here are the backstage doings of the eponymous hit Afghan TV series, and its search for a popular singing sensation. But this relatively routine narrative is set amid daily life in Afghanistan. While informed by its ongoing troubles, it's not the non-stop parade of misery we see on our TVs.
The film opens when Afghan Star is down to its final 10 singers, including two women. The contestants are all in their early 20s, and have lived only through various hard times: the 1980s Soviet invasion, the rise of the restrictive Taliban regime in the 1990s and, since 2001, the whatever-we're-doing by the United States.
Among the casualties of the past three decades was music. The anti-Soviet mujahedeen considered it disrespectful, and the Taliban banned it entirely (along with dancing and television). Now, Afghanistan has a number of TV networks, including the independent Tolo channel, with its huge hit, Afghan Star.
But even mass-produced TV here has the air of amateur jury-rigging: Star is filmed in a Kabul wedding hall, the set a cross between a fancy tent and a high school disco. By our standards, the music is quite innocuous; the songs are chiefly universal laments of love and longing (with the occasional lost-in-translation phrase such as "the bend of your eyebrow is like the sting of the scorpion"). Like Idol, viewers vote by phone for their favorite; the winner is bestowed the title, $5,000 and, very likely, the chance to develop a singing career.
Marking focuses on four of the finalists, each from a different region: Rafi, from Mazir al-Sharif, with his matinee-idol looks; Lema, from Taliban-stronghold Kandahar, where she must wear the burka; Hameed, from Kabul, who trained in classical Afghan music; and Setara, a young woman from Herat who defies social and religious codes by dancing as well as singing.
The camera follows each to his or her home region, where the singers are often greeted by enthusiastic fans. Along the way, the contestants talk about their hopes vis-à-vis the re-emergence of music, which they see as a means of both personal and national re-awakening. ("Music is the language of emotion," says Setara.) Marking delves deepest into the lives of the two women, who understandably face tougher journeys, simply just to go out in public, much less sing provocatively on television.
Marking captures plenty of ordinary life in Afghanistan, from relatively modern city streets to miles of wrecked infrastructure and desperately poor rural communities. Throughout, she shows how the Afghan Star program inspires a variety of positive developments: the man who explains how he maintained an underground TV-repair business during Taliban rule; the teen-age girl who dubs herself an engineer after successfully rigging a TV antenna; and villages and families who come together to cheer on the show.
Also depicted are two sides of the country's faithful: One local cleric prays for the success of a contestant, while another, who sits on the influential Islamic Council, declares Afghan Star in violation of Sharia law, and even suggests it will cause more wars.
Marking also includes photographs and bits of footage from Afghanistan in the 1970s, when an educated class wore flamboyant Western clothing, formed New Wave bands and were free -- from war or religious edicts -- to simply enjoy themselves.
It's hard to prove widespread change through a 90-minute film, but viewers will note at least two ironies in today's Afghanistan. Voting for Afghan Star appears to elicit more genuine participation than did the recent political elections (and coercion is limited to benign tactics such as fliering and friendly persuasion).
And despite our expensive, military-based nation-building, perhaps all that's needed to unite disparate Afghanis across tribal and class lines is a much-derided form of Western entertainment, the talent show. If nothing else, Afghan Star -- the finale of which one-third of the country watched -- may be just the fluffy, inconsequential distraction this beleaguered, fractured nation needs.
It remains to be seen how Afghanistan fares, but Marking's film is an intriguing snapshot of one potentially defining time, as seen through the familiar lens of a national popularity contest. Afghanistan is teetering between war and peace, between very old ways and modernity. It is casting off some its more oppressive strictures, and re-joining the world community, if only by embracing an Idol-type show like virtually every other country. Becoming way too obsessed with TV singing competitions may, in fact, be part of our shared humanity, but that misses the more obvious and simpler point: Afghan Star lets Afghanis enjoy music again. In English, and Pashtu and Dari, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Oct. 9. Harris