Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Released yesterday on DVD: "Afghan Star"

Grade: B

Early on in Afghan Star, director Havana Marking's engrossing documentary about the first season of Afghanistan's version of American Idol, the show's director and on-air host Daoud Sediqi says he hopes the program will take people's hands "away from weapons to music" and deliver a communal sense of peace to its viewers.

But in a country still reeling from years of tyrannical Taliban rule (during which dancing, listening to music and watching TV were all considered crimes), along with a long legacy of civil war among ethnic groups, the belief that a little song and dance will suddenly bring everyone together might seem a bit naive. Or is it?

Afghan Star reveals that the Afghan people strongly crave to make up for years lost to Taliban repression and catch up with the 21st century; the opportunity to sing and dance in public again instantly overcomes longstanding tribal conflicts that have kept the country in a perpetual state of war. Suddenly, just as the program's creater envisioned, everyone is more interested in rooting for their favorite Star contestant than they are in settling old grudges.

But the enthusiasm only goes so far. When finalist Setara Hussainzada dares to let her head scarf slide down a little and dances a bit during a performance, the resulting outrage is so widespread one man suggests "She deserves to be killed." Fearful for her life, Setara goes into hiding.

When interviewed by the filmmakers, though, the aspiring singer remains defiant. Like the women who show up for a taping of Afghan Star sans scarves or burqas, the overwhelming majority of the people we meet in the film equate the program's snowballing popularity with a sense of freedom and democracy. Suddenly, everyone's vote really does count, and the feeling is intoxicating.

If Afghan Star is no less tacky than its American or British counterparts, the important cultural role it plays in the lives of its audience goes far beyond water-cooler fodder. Focusing on the contestants who make the initial cut - two men and two women - the film can't resisting wringing some American Idol-style suspense from speculation about who the eventual victor will be. But the movie also leaves no doubt as to who the real winners are.

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