Directed by: Havana Marking
Winner of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival's Best World Cinema Documentary Director and World Cinema Documentary Audience awards, Havana Marking's Afghan Star charts the journeys of four contestants in a televised singing contest. Afghan Star lifts the veil on existing cultural, religious and ideological beliefs that cause the contestants to risk their lives to sing.
Since the early 2000s, reality television shows from the likes of Dancing with the Stars to Big Brother have infiltrated our homes. Arguably, few have been as popular as the Idol series with the singing competitions spanning 42 countries and countless seasons.
While the Western world has indulged in the guilty pleasure that is reality television, the people of Afghanistan remain relatively new to the concept. In 1996, under Taliban rule, watching television, singing and dancing were outlawed. In 2004, these restrictions were lifted and an entrepreneurial broadcasting company formed Tolo TV, subsequently creating Afghanistan's first televised talent contest, Afghan Star.
Afghani people quickly embraced the show, with 2000 people competing, including three women. For many, it signaled their first encounter with democracy, voting via mobile phones.
The competition promoted equality, uniting the poor and the rich, as everyone voted for their favourite singer. However, it also highlighted the entrenched political attitudes of the people and the vast degree of internal conflicts. Rather than voting for the best singer, people voted for those who represented their own political positions.
Despite the public's friendly reception of the show, the lives of contestants Lema Sahar, Rafi Nabaazda, Setara Hussainzada and Hameed Sahkizada remain vastly different to those of their Australian and American Idol counterparts. Death threats towards the female contestants, Lema and Setara, were frequent. Controversy ensued when Setara challenged fundamental Islamic culture by dancing during her performances.
For the contestants, the competition presented a chance to escape the oppressed lifestyle associated with the Taliban's reign. The contestants strove for something greater: a life as a famous singer. The $5000 prize money for winning the competition equated to more than 10 times the average annual wage in Afghanistan.
Afghan Star features no impressive cinematography. Audiences won't be immersed in the special effects (there are none). However, Afghan Star offers a portrayal of Afghanistan rarely seen: one of hope. Marking has illuminated the competing forces of Sharia law and the people's desire for a progressive future as the contestants endeavour to "take people's hands from weapons to music".
4 out of 5
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