“Afghan Star” and The Hope for Freedom
Movie Review on a New DVD Release
Is peace and some semblance of democracy possible in Afghanistan?
Is there any value in American popular culture?
Filmmaker Havana Marking’s startling documentary, “Afghan Star,” grapples with both Big Questions and—along the way—she shows us scenes we’d never imagine here in the U.S. The documentary covers the debut season of an Afghan network TV clone of “American Idol.”
Here are a few examples of scenes that’ll open your eyes in new ways …
Example 1: A daring young woman who agrees to perform as a singer on this new TV series, “Afghan Star,” is riding in a taxi after the show is over. She gets an urgent cell-phone call from a friend.
The friend breathlessly says: “We heard you were dead!”
The brave young singer says: “No, I’m still alive.”
That’s the kind of real, daily conversation these Afghan youths experience! The stakes for women in Afghanistan are that dire. Some of them have to check in periodically with friends to ensure they’re still alive and well. This isn’t paranoia or hyped-up drama for news media. Young people—young women in particular—face daily threats we’d never envision in the U.S. To underline this point, the new documentary includes interviews about the Afghan TV series with street-corner groups of Afghans, including some very angry young men who openly declare that they’d like to murder the young singer on “Afghan Star.”
She’s smart to have friends check in regularly by cell phone!
Example 2: You’ve never heard pop-song lyrics like this! My wife and I, previewing the documentary, chuckled repeatedly over the lines from Afghan pop songs.
Because Afghan women have spent years wearing head-to-toe covering in public, a lot of the lyrics involve a fleeting glimpse of eyebrows. One line from a particularly hot song: “The bend of your eyebrows is like the sting of a scorpion.”
Lady Gaga? Watch out if these young entertainers hit the States. No need to appear in lingerie anymore! These kids can sizzle through a whole song just reflecting on the shape of someone’s eyes.
Example 3: We’re aware that American politics seem to be spinning out of control with some Tea Party activists even urging bricks through windows in recent weeks. Maybe Americans could learn a few things from the grassroots campaigning Afghans eagerly wage for their stars on this hit TV show!
Unlike “American Idol,” there’s very serious campaigning underway in Afghanistan. One reason is that the entertainers are chosen from across the country and represent many different ethnic groups. So Afghans from children to old men crisscross their regions, handing out simply made posters and handbills—urging Afghans to pick up their cell phones and vote for regional singers.
It’s amazing footage. Every American civics class should show “Afghan Star” to teach our youth something about the infectious power of democracy.
Finally, a few disclaimers: Yes, this is a documentary film about a very popular TV show, so that may make you a little skeptical about its serious value in global politics. And, yes, it’s about a cheap knock off of “American Idol” (although there’s no involvement from the American series).
Yes, you can chuckle at the quality of make-shift Afghan pop culture—such as it is after years of the Taliban and warfare. This new pop culture often is pretty basic stuff. Before one “Afghan Star” production, for example, the documentary cameras take us back stage to show the network-TV crew toggling together what looks like a jumbled pile of scrap electrical components they’ve found to run their lights and cameras.
You’ll sit there through the whole thing fascinated by the window it opens into this mountainous country where we’ve been at war for so many years. I came away from the film deeply worried for the future of women and young people in Afghanistan. But I also came away greatly encouraged at the bravery and creative spirit of these young men and women delivering “Afghan Star” into families’ living rooms whether they own big Kabul homes—or they’re wiring a makeshift aerial on the roof of a mud hut in the mountains.
The film goes on sale today on DVD. We’re not alone in recommending it. The film already has received praise from Oprah, Jon Stewart and the Sundance film festival among others. Enjoy it with friends.
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