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Afghanistan's Got Talent: 'Afghan Star' Observes Pop Culture in a War-torn Nation

By Beige Adams


Editor's Note: Afghan Star premieres Thursday, March 18, on HBO. Here's an article from the July 2009 Documentary Online in conjunction with the film's theatrical run in June and July.


Taking the inflammatory convergence of democracy, modernity and pop culture in a fragile "post-war" Afghanistan as its point of departure, Afghan Star is a powerful and evocative documentary, grounded in astute observation and led by compelling human narratives. Winner of both World Cinema-Documentary Audience and Directing Awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the feature debut for British director Havana Marking is a rare snapshot of a society in transition--unmoored and unpredictable. The resulting tensions, unfolding in front of the camera, are what ultimately push the film beyond its own conventional framework.


Partnering with Afghani producers Saad Mohseni and Jahid Mohseni, Marking follows four young contestants through the third season of a wildly popular talent show (also called Afghan Star) modeled on American Idol, in which audience members vote for candidates via SMS (Short Message Service). As the filmmakers point out, for many Afghanis--about 68 percent of whom are under age 25, according to the United National Development Programme--this is a first flirtation with democracy. Women, men, children, elders, Pashtuns and Hazaras: Everyone with a cell phone is allowed their say in determining the outcome of a contest that, in its own limited scope, appears to soften the lines of difference and collapse traditional hierarchies.

While one contestant emerges as the indisputable heroine, music is the first subject of the film,  and protagonists and filmmakers alike want us to see it as they do: powerful, transformative, essential. After decades of civil war, oppression and the crushing weight of underdevelopment and poverty, people in Afghanistan are clearly hungry for expression and transformation. But only a few years out of Taliban-era prohibition of music, television and dance, the unapologetic spectacle of celebrity culture in a format like Afghan Star tests the limits of how far this society is willing to go, revealing cracks in the surface of the "new" Afghanistan.

Rafi (a 19-year-old idol-in-the-making from Mazar e Sharif), Hameed (a classically trained musician from the persecuted Hazara ethnic group), Lima (a 25-year-old woman from conservative Kandahar) and Setara (a 21-year-old woman from Herat): Each subject has a unique story that brings broader issues into focus.


Contestants Rafi Naabzada (lef) and Lima Sahar (center) performing on stage in Havana Marking's Afghan Star, a Zeitgeist Films release.


For the two young male contestants, both varying measures of earnestness, bravado and brittle celebrity aura, the journey to fame has a dark side. But Lima and Setara, two of only three women out of an original pool of 2,000 contestants, take a far greater risk--by just daring to make themselves visible.

The story hinges on one climactic moment that itself might seem rather underwhelming to Westerners unfamiliar with regressive interpretations of Islamic morality, but is as good as any fiction. Coiffed, painted and bedecked in festive but traditional dress, Setara is nervous but defiant in a televised performance. Refusing to contain her emotions, she moves her body in anticipation of her voice, briefly improvising a modest dance step. When her head scarf slips off, she does not replace it.

Backstage, horrified, her fellow contestants' voices are thin when they ask, "Why is she dancing?" An eerie silence ensues between sound bites. Her act of defiance changes the tone and direction of the film, as the controversy intensifies and new ones arise.

Out in the streets, condemnation of Setara is not limited to the "old guard." In a chilling scene, a young man looks solemnly at the camera as he declares Setara should be killed for her transgressions. Her life in danger, the young singer is forced into hiding, with the rest of the country still reeling from her performance. Religious leaders soon step into the debate, putting pressure on the government to ban dancing and offer "only Islamic broadcasting."

The specters of repression and fear are palpable, but so too, apparently, is a wave of hope and defiance.

Daoud Sadiqi, the affable host and emcee, waves the Taliban away with a snap of his fingers and calls contestants--dancing or not--"just characters I can make a better culture with."   Unfortunately for Sadiqi, the continuing drama that makes the story so rich has very real consequences for its characters, and he reportedly left Afghanistan to seek asylum in the US as the film screened at Sundance.

In the end, 11 million people (a third of the population) tune in to watch the finale, gathering in homes, fruit shops, coffee houses and military barracks. Despite its obvious artifice and uncertain future, the show has lodged itself deep in the cultural fabric by awakening something in the audience.

A study in contradictions, the Afghan Star phenomenon is both an expression and a catalyst of the dramatic conflicts that are shaping modern Afghanistan. For a brief moment, Marking's lens brings some of the colors of these conflicts into focus, before dissolving into so many more questions.

In early July, on the heels of the film's New York premiere, director Havana Marking discussed her experience with Documentary via e-mail. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Documentary: You've mentioned that you had long been interested in Afghanistan and had heard about the talent show from a journalist. How did you get started and put it all together? Did you have difficulties finding funding or partners? What was your vision?

Havana Marking: I knew the idea was brilliant and would be commissioned, but it was my first big film (I had only directed a 30 min. film before: The Crippendales) and so I was the hurdle. I have had a similar situation before, when I had an idea commissioned and then they insisted someone else direct. I was determined that wouldn't happen; I knew that I was the best person to direct this film.

I chose to go first to the Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation, which gives development funding for feature docs and nurture new talent. Mad visionaries that they are, they gave me £15k immediately. It's not a lot, but along with their support and contacts it made all the difference.

I went on my own and filmed for a month. I came back knowing it would work logistically, and with a taster tape of engaging characters. We then went to More4 True Stories; Sandra Whipham commissioned it instantly. 

D: How long did you spend filming in Afghanistan?

HM: I was there for four months.

D: Were there overt threats to your safety?

HM: There were no personal threats, but a general protocol had to be followed. You could only film in safe areas; we didn't go to Kandahar, for example, where one of my characters was from, because it was dangerous for us, but even more importantly, it was dangerous for her to be seen with Westerners there. We gave her a handycam, and so she was able to film some stuff for us.

D: How did the sense of unpredictability (and danger) in the field affect your work as a director, and the development of the film?

HM: Afghanistan is very volatile and problems can flare up in odd areas at any time. There was a warlord in the northwest who suddenly freaked out, so we had to cancel a shoot as his local militia was on the rampage there. He wasn't Taliban; in fact, he was part of the government, so you never knew what was about to happen. Luckily, because we were working with Tolo TV, the local TV station that made Afghan Star, we had access to all information from their news teams.

Day-to-day, it affected us because we couldn't really plan anything in advance due to kidnap threat. We just had to turn up and drink lots of tea and hope the person would agree to filming. I realized early on that this was a huge liberation; we went with the action as and when it happened.

D: While the film is observational and maintains its distance, there is an obvious empathy that comes through in the portrayal of Setara. What kind of effect do you think the emotion of that whole narrative had on you and on the film?

HM: Setara became the main character when she danced on stage. Here, the film's tone completely changes, and as she realizes the implications of her actions the reality of modern-day Afghanistan is revealed to the film's audience. Her story, my concern and in turn the audience's concern are what make the film so gripping; the film becomes a political thriller rather than just a quirky look at modern life in today's Afghanistan. If we didn't care about Setara--and of course, if I hadn't cared about her in the first place--the film would not be so intense or important. 


Contestant Setara Hussainzada backstage in Havana Marking's Afghan Star, a Zeitgeist Films release.


D: Would you have done anything differently given another opportunity? Anything left unsaid-- or something that you just didn't have room for?

HM: There are a million different things we could have done, and a million different things that could have happened as and when we were there. But when you have a deadline and a budget, you make decisions and live with them. I am 100 percent happy with the film, so, no, I wouldn't do anything differently. I don't mean the film is perfect, but we do have a brilliant balance between heart-filled content and craft, considering the time and place that we were. You can overdo things and they lose their spirit. 

D: Do you keep in touch with any of the subjects, or have any recent news?

HM: Daoud Sadiqi, Afghan Star's presenter, who recently sought asylum in the US, has just been granted asylum, which is great news for him and I am very happy. Safety in Kabul really degenerated last year and hope was thin on the ground. 

Setara is singing and has released songs on the radio. I also heard she was engaged, which is wonderful news. 

D: How has making this film influenced your interests and aspirations as a filmmaker? Did it lead you to other ideas or passions? 

HM: It has made me really want to tell more stories and make more films. I am confident now that I can and do have a way of directing that works. It's a tough industry, and in the UK it can feel quite cutthroat. With Afghan Star I have found the perfect team and have the perfect bedrock: my executive producers, Mike Lerner and Martin Herring, have been the most brilliant supports, and so I know that together we can go on to make more.


Havana Marking, director of Afghan Star.


D: Are there any other filmmakers in particular from whom you draw inspiration? Any work that you looked to when you started this project?

HM: Kim Longinotto is a huge inspiration for me. I doubt she realizes what an impact she has had on the British documentary community. To see a woman make such wonderful, beautiful and heart-filled films, be successful and still be a nice person is very inspiring. She crafts things perfectly and still keeps all the the spirit and emotion. I can only hope to follow that path. 

D: What's next?

HM: There are a number of irons in the fire; hopefully, one will come off! 

Afghan Star, which opened June 26 in New York through Zeitgeist, opens July 17 in Washington, DC, and July 24 in Los Angeles. For more information, click here.

Beige Luciano-Adams is a journalist based in Los Angeles, where she covers politics, business, arts and culture for a variety of publications.