The neon lights might be bright on Broadway, but apparently they're just as bright in the mountains of Afghanistan. The pursuit of fame and fortune transcends geographic and cultural boundaries, as evidenced by the 2009 documentary, Afghan Star.
The movie's name refers to Afghanistan's most beloved television show, an American Idol-styled program in which amateur singers compete for the coveted title and a $5,000 grand prize. That such a show exists in the war-torn country -- much less that it's insanely popular - is extraordinary when you consider that music and dancing were banned under Taliban rule. Once elections in 2004 ended the theocracy, however, Afghans quickly brought song and dance back into their lives. "If there was no music, humans would be sad," a blind says in the documentary's open. "There would be nothing. If there was no singing, then the world would be silent."
The importance of music in shaping human experience is spotlighted as documentary maker Havana Marking chronicles four Afghan Star competitors. The men, 19-year-old Rafi Naabzada and 20-year-old Hameed Sakhizada, are both handsome, polished and delighted with their celebrity status. The female contestants are in sharp contrast to each other. Lema Sahar is a 25-year-old Pashtun with conservative views of women in society, while 22-year-old Setara Hussainzada is startlingly independent and sexualized -- at least by the rigid standards of her native country.
The film is fortunate to stumble on to a tense and frightening drama when Setara removes a scarf from her head and dares to sway to the song she sings. Viewers are shocked. Off stage, Lema cups her hand over her mouth in astonishment. "I know she did this because of her emotions," Lema says, "but it will not have a good end."
She's not kidding. Setara's display costs her advancement in the contest, but the reverberations go further. She is forced into hiding amid a flurry of death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. "She deserves to be killed," says one fan of the show interviewed by Marking.
Afghan Star is fluidly paced and consistently watchable, but it loses momentum when it drops the Setara storyline. Perhaps Marking doesn't venture deep enough into the lives of the three remaining contestants, but they simply don't seem especially interesting. Rashi and Hameed, in particular, are cut from the same cloth.
Still, what captivates here are not the people, but rather the spectacle itself. The dominance of Afghan Star in the country's zeitgeist is remarkable. A third of the nation tuned in for the show's finale. One fan makes it clear that voting for their favorite singer is a heck of a lot more exciting than voting in parliamentary elections. It's a view of democracy to which many an American Idol fan could attest.
Presented in 1.78:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays, picture quality is solid if unremarkable. Colors are naturalistic, but the image is often soft.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 gets the job done, but nothing more. Subtitles are in English.
The only extras are an interview with Havana Marking (11:13) and a theatrical trailer.
Afghan Star is a very good documentary, if not a great one. Its exploration of pop culture in modern Afghanistan is fascinating, even if the contest itself is less so.