‘American Idol,’ transplanted in Afghanistan
July 17, 2009
If you heard that the principal American export to Afghanistan (other than war) was “American Idol,” you might understandably shake your head with regret. Instead of exposing the Afghans to something of substance and intelligence, something that might even portray America in a positive light – the music of Michael Franti, the novels of Philip Roth, the movies of P.T. Anderson, “The Simpsons” – we have given them an overblown, empty spectacle that emphasizes money, fame and manipulative criticism. No doubt, some would argue that what we have given them is a perfect representation of our American selves.
But “Afghan Star,” Afghanistan’s knock-off of America’s most popular show, is hardly a mirror image of “American Idol.” The concept is exactly the same: Singers from around the country compete in a contest that is as much about looks, image and popularity as it as about musical ability. But in the translation to an Islamic, Central Asian country that has been ravaged by war and at times dominated by the extreme fundamentalists of the Taliban party, the singing-competition format takes on heightened significance.
“Afghan Star,” a documentary by the London-based filmmaker Havana Marking, uses the TV show to reveal the complicated realities of contemporary Afghanistan. The film follows a small handful of contestants, representing various regions and various ethnicities, as they make their way toward the cash prize of $5,000 – about five times the annual income of the average Afghan. But the focus is not on the personalities or over-the-top performances, or the even more overblown critiques of the judges, but on Afghan society: political factions, regionalism, the look and feel of the country, and most important, the intense tug-of-war between fundamentalists and modernists.
This last concern plays out most dramatically in the arena of women’s rights. The most controversial scene in “Afghan Star” is when one female contestant, in her final performance after learning that she has been voted out of the contest, dances for the cameras. Her movements are modest, but the response from some quarters is extreme, all the way up to death threats.
Director Marking takes seriously the journalistic edict of “show, don’t tell.” She avoids the temptation to use spokesmen, outsiders and experts to comment on Afghanistan society. When she finds it necessary to present background and statistics, she uses low-key text graphics.
Marking keeps her eye on the TV program, and through her skilled vision, the film reveals, probably better than any talking-head documentary, what everyday life feels like in Afghanistan. We see not only the sociopolitical challenges of staging “Afghan Star,” but also the technical difficulties in a country where TV equipment is hard to come by and electricity is off about as often as it is on. We see the translations of their lyrics. We see the way the contestants treat one another. We see the differences between relatively liberal Kabul, and the more conservative Herat and Kandahar. We see the struggle for a more tolerant society, and how a simple, pop-culture TV show can become a force towards opening up the country.
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We see Afghanistan – a narrow slice, sure, but one that feels true, compelling and close-up.