Saturday, April 04, 2009

AFGHAN STAR - compelling doc about Afghani cultural tensions

AFGHAN STAR is the debut feature length documentary from Havana Marking. It's a 90 minute movie chronicling social tensions in contemporary Afghanistan as they coalesce around the TV show Afghan Star, loosely modelled on TV talent shows like American Idol and X Factor. After years of Taliban rule, where music, dancing, TV and radio were outlawed, Afghanistan is starting to thaw. TV is legal - so is music. In Kabul, men are clean-shaven and women, while veiled, don't wear the full burkha. On Afghan Star men, and even some women, sing songs of teenage heart-break. The Afghanis SMS their votes, learning democracy, and even start to vote for contestants who don't come from their own tribe. The show's producers talk about bringing Afghanis from guns to music and one of the top contestants sings songs of national unity. On the face of it, the show is a major success. Ratings are monumental, the country is in a fever over the final: music has returned.

And then comes the more conflicted reality. Kabul may be comparatively liberal, but Kandahar, where one of the finalists - a woman - comes from, isn't. The Taliban tolerate her success out of tribal pride but threaten her when the show is over. Another contestant, a woman, dares to actually dance on stage. Nothing provocative by Western standards, but as she dances her veil slips. The death threats roll in. Her fellow contestants are disgusted with her. But she is courageous and defiant. The Islamic Council - a government sponsored body that pronounces on Sharia Law - has all dancing on TV banned.

The resulting documentary shows Afghanistan deeply conflicted. The younger generation, especially those in Kabul, are desperate to have their share of modern culture and to resurrect the pre-war Afghanistan of hip teenagers of both sexes at University. But the country is still in the grip of the Taliban and, more subtley, of self-censoring conservatism.

I found AFGHAN STAR fascinating, insightful and well-put together. It deserves wider distribution than it currently has.

AFGHAN STAR played Sundance 2009 where it won the Audience and Director award in the World Cinema - Documentary category. It is currently on release in the UK.

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