Afghan Star: Kabul Kids Beat Back The Blue Meanies
This past weekend, I finally got a chance to see the documentary Afghan Star, on HBO.
If you haven’t heard about this remarkable film, the feature documentary debut by director Havana Marking, it follows the contestants in Afghanistan’s first American Idol-style TV contest. Post-Taliban Afghanistan is still learning about public displays of singing, and don’t even ask about public dancing, but already this program, seen on the local Tolo TV channel, has taken off big time. As the film explains, the program is teaching the nation – a large percentage of whom watch the show and vote for the stars by texting on mobile phones – how to move people “from guns to music.”
Rejecting the repression of both the Mujahiddeen and the Taliban, the show and its singers represent a peaceful opposition to old ways. Still, old habits die hard and we see, in the film, the daily challenges to the shows producers and the life threatening dilemma it sometimes presents to the contestants, particularly the women.
Here’s the trailer for Afghan Star:
Whereas American Idol holds its finals in a lavish studio in Hollywood, the big show here is set in a modest hotel room in Kabul. Eventually we focus on a few choice competitors, including a 25 year old Kandahar woman named Lima, who has to keep her music a secret lest her disapproving neighbours turn her in. We also follow a Hazara boy named Hammeed, who has classical musical education, and who has a natural charisma and a politicians zeal for networking. 19 year old Rafi is the Nick Jonas of Mazar e Sharif where he is a local phenomenon. According to the film’s producers claim, Rafi has all the local girls sneaking looks at him “from behind their burqas.”
It is the story of Setara, from Herat, which is the most troubling in the piece. She’s a 21 year old Bollywood-friendly wannabe pop chanteuse whose body motions -timid gyrations by Western standards – have generated in the Muslim world the kind of controversy that Madonna got over here for her lame “lesbian” kiss with Britney Spears on the MTV awards. It’s a riveting moment when, in the competition she unrepentantly continues dancing – dancing of all things – during the big finale show. The looks of the other contestant range from disapproval to disgust, Setara has to go into hiding with her crying family in Herat.
When I saw that the film was 93 minutes, I honestly thought that 20 minutes in, I’d want to switch it off (we were watching it On Demand on HBO remember), but it gripped me all the way through, just as films like Spellbound or Wordplay had done for their respective subjects (spelling bees and New York Time Crosswords).
It may seem a little trite or hokey to say it, but it must be restated: the freedom to express ourselves with music, in whatever form, is not to be taken lightly. Oppressors know this, music is freedom itself and the act of cherishing, preserving and celebrating music can be a political act in the face of those who would silence us. It’s not for nothing that the villains in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine were “blue meanies” who wanted to a world without music. The real blue meanies, be they Taliban or Christian Fundamentalists, won’t come for your guns first, it’ll be your music. Okay, maybe both.
Afghan Star reminds us that protecting music and freeing the arts is not some hypothetical struggle but a matter of life and death.