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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Afghan Star

Last night I watched, Afghan Star, a documentary featuring the wildly popular tv show with the same title. Afghan Star is an American Idol-like talent show in Afghanistan. The show is similar to its US counterpart wherein young men and women audition to be on the show and then viewers can vote on who they want to eliminate weekly until only the winner is left at the end. The documentary highlights the behind-the-scenes stories of the show's third season, the backgrounds of the last 4 remaining contestants, and many of their fans.

Just as American Idol is so popular in America, Afghan Star has gained so much publicity and support in Afghanistan. On Friday nights, when the show airs, 11 million Afghans (1/3 the country's population) watch the show. But there is also a huge difference from America, in that Afghanistan is suffering from so much poverty. In the documentary it shows that people hook up their television sets to car batteries so they can tune in. Dozens of neighbors and friends excitedly gather round a small tv screen. There are many who live in remote places that have to walk several miles to restaurants and cafes that have televisions that broadcast the show. One man narrated that he drove for 15 hours to watch a live performance. Many Afghans sell their possessions to purchase SIM cards for their cellphones so they can vote for their favorite contestants. Since the show's inception, there have also been many censors watching the show and applying pressure on the producers and the contestants because they think Afghan Star is making the Afghan people too liberal. One female contestant received death threats and her family was treated as outcasts in their hometown because while singing and dancing on the show her headscarf fell off revealing her hair on national television.

More than just a documentary about a show that has become a national obsession, the film also serves as a prism by which we can see the struggles of the country. They have been through so many wars and the oppressive rule of the Taliban, that the people of Afghanistan are taking very cautious and very small baby steps with their new found freedom. Because music, television, singing, dancing and all forms of art have been banned for so long, the popularity of Afghan Star serves as a hope that Afghanistan's new generation is now embracing the return of art and culture in their lives. The documentary shows the struggle to want to modernize coupled with the fear of letting go of things that have been status quo. What is also interesting is that the 4 remaining contestants are from 4 different ethnic groups. These groups used to be at war with each other for so long but are now trying to forge a co-existence that allows them all to be considered as Afghans. In many ways the documentary becomes a way for the world to see what life in Afghanistan has been in the past, how it is today, and where it wants to be in the future.

If you find yourself with an opportunity to watch this film, then, please do. It is by no means a fantastic blockbuster or one that would rake in millions for the movie company that made it. It is an interesting film though and one that won at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival for directing and audience awards in the world documentary competition. But more than that, it is a very poignant eye-opener for the viewers. It makes us see things in a different light and helps us appreciate many of the things we often take for granted.

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