Movie of the Week: “Afghan Star” (2009)

Afghanistan is well known to be one of the worst places to live on the planets. Decades of war, disastrous and corrupt governments, religious fundamentalism and a non-existent economy have turned what is probably one of the most amazing areas in the world into a quagmire of poverty, ill health, conflict and violence. One can say much about the American occupation of Afghanistan, but it is hard to believe that anything like the popular television program “Afghan Star” would have been possible under the miserable Taliban regime.

Under the Taliban, television, music and dancing were absolutely forbidden. Afghanis, of course, found ways around these restrictions, clandestinely keeping televisions and radios in their homes and patronizing secret repair shops to keep secular information from the outside flowing in. “Afghan Star” is the Taliban’s worst nightmare come true. Much like the model presented by the popular American talent show “American Idol”, regular Afghanis of all ethnic extractions line up at massive auditions. Panels of popular judges choose the best among them to allow them to display their talents for the entire country to see. Week after week, Afghan citizens vote using their cell phones, and the list of performers is pared down until the final “Afghan Star” is selected.

The movie “Afghan Star” follows a season of the television show and the five final performers as they prepare and compete for the title. Through wins and losses, each of the competitors is interviewed and clearly understands that this is more than a cheap television program. “Afghan Star” is Afghanistan’s bid at true democracy, each voter campaigning for their favorite performer. One particularly excited viewer hocks his car to purchase SIM cards to allow people to vote. Fans print posters using their own money to drum up support. Despite vast ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, competition is peaceful and all in the interest of pride and having a good time in a country devastated by years of war and tribal fighting.

“Afghan Star” is not without it’s negatives, however. One competitor dances a laughably unsexy trot during her performance and allows her hair to be exposed. It’s so incredibly innocuous to an American, that it’s mindboggling when the other contestants imply that she has committed some grave crime deserving of beating or death. Subsequently, she is evicted from her apartment in Kabul, receives death threats from all around the country and is rumored to be dead in her home town. In a world of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, it’s hard to remember that there are places where the mere act of dancing could get one killed.

It is obvious that despite Taliban efforts to quash human expression, dancing and music are incredibly important to typical Afghanis. It’s only the hardened elderly and unemployed male youth that seem to worry about the self-expression of women and backward religious ideals. If “Afghan Star” and any number of other documentaries about life in Afghanistan is any indication, most Afghanis are like any other people on Earth.

There are very few negatives that I can say about a fantastic work like “Afghan Star.” It is an inspiring document of a country desperate to regain its identity and its place in a world and a testament to the power of technology to foster freedom of expression and cooperation. Like a multitude of other documentaries on Afghanistan, “Afghan Star” uncovers the deep complexities of one of the most troubled, but fascinating regions of the planet.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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