Saturday, August 8, 2009

It All Rides On One Song

Afghan Star, judged as a television show, is abysmal. The mechanics of it are no different than American Idol, America's Got Talent, or any of a thousand shows in between; the set looks only slightly better than a school assembly, with the audience seated on little more than folding chairs. Yet that's not the point, because this is Afghanistan, and a show that many countries consider junk (albeit enormously popular junk) can be a very radical and dangerous idea. The documentary Afghan Star takes a look at a country where it is.

The similarities are just as startling as the differences. Thousands of people auditioned in front of judges who declared most of them awful; host Daoud Sediqi seems to be following exactly the same script copy as Ryan Seacrest. When the dramatic music started and Daoud called two of the contestants to step forward, I said out loud in the movie theater "This cannot be what I think it is." Yet what does one say when the contestants leave the studio after the taping of such a show and start getting death threats?

The movie follows four of the top ten. Perhaps surprisingly, two are women. While the men can (and do) run around Kabul campaigning with posters and blaring trucks, Setara Hussainzada causes something of a national scandal when she - horror of horrors - dances while singing her elimination number. She is forced to go into hiding.

More than one Islamic council declares the show Afghanistan's downfall; the Taliban threatens to break the cell phone network to stop people from voting. Yet this does not dampen the enthusiasm of the nation, many of whom are watching on barely working TVs with improvised antennas. The show's producers (and contestants) seem fully aware that they are an important part of the future of Afghanistan, yet they can only go so far. The country's various provinces and ethnic groups seem more than a little isolated from each other; Setara is told not only that a woman shouldn't dance on TV, but a woman from Herat certainly shouldn't.

Can a television show change the world? I can't answer that question in a blog post; I recommend you go see this movie and decide for yourself. A world where more people vote for singers than for politicians may seem ridiculous, but this is the word we live in; and to paraphrase Ryan Seacrest, THIS...

is Afghan Star.


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