After 30 years of war and five devastating years of Taliban rule, pop culture is beginning to return to Afghanistan. Since 2005, millions have been tuning in to Tolo TV’s wildly popular “American Idol”-style series “Afghan Star.” And when viewers vote for their favorites via cell phone, it is the first encounter with the democratic process for many. The timely HBO documentary “Afghan Star” offers a compelling window into the country’s tenuous, ongoing struggle for modernity when it debuts Thursday, March 18 (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT). The film won World Cinema Directing and World Cinema Audience Awards at the Sundance Film Festival’s 2009 World Documentary competition.
Other HBO playdates: March 22 (1:15 p.m., 9:00 p.m.), 25 (4:00 p.m.), 27 (10:15 a.m.) and 30 (10:00 a.m.), and April 4 (1:45 p.m.) and 6 (midnight)
HBO2 playdate: March 31 (8:00 p.m.)
Observing the Afghani people’s relationship to its pop culture, director Havana Marking’s moving documentary tells the dramatic stories of four young finalists: two men and two very brave women who risk their lives to sing. Marking gained unprecedented access into the lives of contestants, fans and producers to explore a pop culture phenomenon that departs from Afghanistan’s long-standing traditions.
“Afghan Star” focuses on four of the show’s finalists:
Rafi – A handsome 19-year-old from Mazar-e-Sharif, Rafi is a hero in his hometown. Over the course of the competition, posters of him spring up across the city, with girls sneaking looks from behind their burkhas.
Lema – Of the 2,000 contestants, 25-year-old Lema, from Kandahar, is one of only three women. Coming from one of the most traditional and religious areas of the country, she neither dresses nor dances provocatively, for fear of her life. Still, Lema says she has no choice but to sing, feeling the $5,000 prize is her only hope for the future.
Hameed – A classically trained singer from the Hazara ethnic group, Hameed reaches the top ten, becoming a hero for his people. He is backed by a huge support network, encompassing poster campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and outdoor concerts.
Setara – A 21-year-old from Herat, Setara’s modern fashion, Bollywood makeup and stage moves make her a controversial figure. She is largely adored by young girls, and despised by older traditionalists.
When the competition is narrowed down to seven contestants, excitement in the country reaches a fever pitch. Events take a dramatic turn when one contestant, Setara, causes an uproar by dancing on stage, and worse, letting her head scarf fall to reveal her hair, actions that put her life in danger. Though the performance is tame by Western standards, her fellow competitors are shocked, and Setara herself is visibly shaken when she realizes what has happened. A week later, with the country in turmoil over the incident, a cabinet minister speaks out against the program and many say Setara “deserves to be killed.” She goes home to Herat, where her worried family awaits.
As the finale nears, the whole country is buzzing about Rafi and Hameed, the final contestants. Though Lema and Setara are no longer in the competition, several women in the audience giddily show their support by not wearing burkhas. After the Afghan Star is announced, Rafi and Hameed become household names. Lema, who also received death threats, lives under protection of the city government in Kandahar, and Setara returns to Kabul to record an album. Despite pressure from the government, Tolo TV continues to air “Afghan Star.”