by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
American Idol in Afghanistan? Seriously?
Afghanistan’s first competition/reality show, Afghan Star, is arguably the most popular – and controversial – television program in Afghanistan. Eleven million people, or one-third of the country, tuned in for the competition’s finale. And at least two of the finalists now fear for their lives.
The competition’s format is very similar to its popular predecessor, American Idol. Afghan Star holds auditions all over the country, attracting hundreds of hopefuls who think they can sing but really can’t. Charismatic host Daoud Sediqi is as much a part of the show as the singers, but he doesn’t pick favorites – at least on screen. Viewers then vote for their favorite star via mobile phones with a winner-take-all cash prize and record deal at stake.
The difference is, in Afghanistan, only three women auditioned, while over 2,000 men hoped to be the country’s new pop music icon.
Even though the competition is mostly comprised of men, the fact that Afghanistan has a widely watched television program where people sing is, in itself, revolutionary. Music was considered sacrilegious and banned by the Taliban from 1996 until 2001, and many of these sentiments still linger. Unlike American Idol, Afghan Star needs armed guards at live tapings to protect the competitors from Taliban threats. Tolo T.V. created the show in hopes that it could “move people from guns to music.”
British director and producer Havana Marking follows four finalists – one of whom wins the competition in the film’s dramatic conclusion. Rafi, a 19-year old from Mazar e Sharif, just wants to sing for people; for him, the show is about music, not politics. Lima, a 25-year old from Kandahar, feels that music is part of her ethnic heritage, even though she fears for her life when she returns to her traditional hometown. Hameed, a 20-year old classically trained singer from the Hazara community, represents the pride of his people, who were persecuted by the Taliban. Marking pays special attention to the most controversial Afghan Star finalist: Setara, a 21-year old from Herat.Setara is a young feminist who loves modern fashion and glamorous makeup. In her promotional posters, she poses without a headscarf. Romantically, she’s looking for an “open-minded” man with “strong eyebrows.” During her Afghan Star performances, she pushes cultural limits by dancing on stage (more like swaying by Western standards). This controversial move is unpopular, and she is eliminated from the competition. During her post-elimination solo, she purposefully dances around the stage and lets her headscarf fall off her head onto her shoulders – her long dark hair on full display for all of Afghanistan to see.
Setara’s public displays of dancing and hair spark an immediate national backlash, the press portraying her as a loose woman. On camera, some Afghanis tell the filmmakers that “she deserves to be killed.” Still, Setara doesn’t regret her bold actions, “I wanted to lift the heaviness from my heart,” she says.
The film documents the discernable disconnect between conservative older generations and Afghanistan’s youth culture, which accounts for much of the controversy and animosity surrounding the show and its contestants. But Afghan Star also captures the very positive aspects of the program; the show is, in many cases, the closest most Afghanis have come to participating in a democracy. Calling in a vote for an Afghan Star is the first time that many people have ever voted for anything, must less crossing ethnic and religious lines to do so.
Afghan Star’s finalists become bona fide celebrities. Fans actually sell their cars to raise money for their favorite star. In a particularly telling scene, a woman in a burqa excitedly takes a camera phone picture of Rafi, never mind that they’re at a mosque. Marking manages to capture the passion many Afghanis feel for the competition with shots of people running to their houses so they don’t miss a moment of the show, of twenty fans crowded around a small television in a tiny room eagerly cheering for their beloved singers, and crowds swarming competitors’ cars on the streets of Kabul.
American Idol is a hugely popular celebrity-making enterprise enjoyed my millions of fans. By that same token, Afghan Star gives just a few people a chance at great fame and fortune. But the impact of the show cannot be measured in votes or the value of the cash prize. What makes Afghan Star so powerful is that it documents a hopeful side of Afghanistan – a young nation filled with smiling people who love music.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.