Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Afghan Star

Hawking Yankee pop-culture in a war-torn nation, at least there’s no Paula Abdul

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

While the idea of importing American Idol to Afghanistan might seem wrong on so many levels, the compelling and insightful Afghan Star demonstrates how the connection between music and youth is as universal as it is inspiring.

Reveling in the uplift of the human spirit, and hopeful in a way that never seems cloying, Havana Marking's by-the-numbers documentary shows how, after decades of Taliban repression, this audience-interactive talent show both seduces and inspires a war-weary people, revealing their culture, politics and social mores in unexpected ways. Though the doc is no great shakes when it comes to visuals or approach (in fact, the filmmaking is rather bland), the content is king.

Entertaining and eye-opening, Marking showcases four Afghan Star finalists as they exhibit their incredible talents, navigate the rocky waters of newfound expression, and challenge both our and their own nation's assumptions about cultural identity. Yes, much like American Idol, there are craven displays of hunger for fame and fortune (minus the entitled sense of narcissism), but given the context — this is a poverty-stricken nation that hasn't voted for anything in more than 30 years — the film offers a fascinating socio-political portrait of a county trying to rebuild itself after decades of violence, intolerance and oppression. And, thankfully, Paula Abdul is nowhere in sight.

Actually, the disturbing reality is that the few women who do compete in Afghan Star do it with disadvantage and risk. Not only are their fans not permitted to encourage support (the male contestants have traveling campaigns that lobby for votes), some tribes view their participation as a capital offense. Marking does a good job of milking the "who will win?" story arc that has been the centerpiece of everything from Spellbound to Survivor to the mockumentary Best in Show. She uses the charismatic final four and their backstories as both a window into the culture and dramatic thrust, generating the most sparks from the experiences of a young woman from Kandahar who dares to dance on stage, and ends up having a politician call for her death. 

But beyond who emerges victorious in the "Moment of Truth," Afghan Star examines the impact of the phenomenon itself, delivering an incisive investigation into the hopes and fears of contemporary Afghanistan. When you consider that only one in ten Afghans even owns a TV and yet a huge percentage of the population tunes in to see who will take home the $5,000 prize (yes, that's $5,000), it's a stark reminder of just how powerful our cultural exports are. And alarmingly, it reveals that there are greedy promoters ever-ready to hawk American-style pop culture to even the war-weariest nations. Forget water and electricity; that's entertainment! Can you say bread and circuses?

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13 and 20, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov 15.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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