After thirty years of war and five devastating years of Taliban rule, pop culture is beginning to return to Afghanistan. Since 2005, millions have been tuning in to Tolo TV's wildly popular musical competition series, "Afghan Star." The contest is open to everyone across the country regardless of gender. Two thousand people audition, and when viewers vote for their favorites via cell phone, it is, for many, their first encounter with the democratic process. Winner of the Directing and Audience Awards in Sundance's 2009 World Documentary competition, "Afghan Star" follows the dramatic stories of four young finalists as they hazard everything to become the nation's favorite performer.
The four finalists profiled are:
Rafi - A handsome 19-year-old from Mazare-Sharif with pop-star potential, Rafi is a hero in his hometown. Through the course of the competition, posters spring up across the city, with girls sneaking looks from behind their burkhas.
Lema - A 25-year-old woman from Kandahar, Lema has a very different experience than Rafi. Of 2,000 contestants, Lema is one of only three women. Coming from one of the most traditional and religious areas in the country, Lema neither dresses nor dances provocatively, for fear of her life. But she says she has no choice but to sing - the $5,000 prize is her only future.
Hameed - A classically trained singer from the Hazara ethnic group, Hameed reaches the top 10, becoming a hero for his people. He has a huge support network that has sprung up, encompassing poster campaigns, door-to-door canvassing, and outdoor concerts.
Setara - A 21-year-old singer from Herat, Setara's blatant embrace of modern fashion and Bollywood makeup have made her a controversial figure. Largely because of this, she is adored by young girls, and despised by older traditionalists.
The film follows Rafi, Lema, Hameed and Setara in the weeks and days leading up to the final results, when the country's Afghan Star will be named. We also meet the Khan family, possibly the show's #1 fans. Before each broadcast, the Khan's teenage daughter climbs up to the roof to assemble a makeshift antenna. "I am an engineer," she laughs, while her younger sister, playing with a toy cell phone, calls in her vote (for Setara).
With seven contestants left, excitement in the country reaches a fever pitch. On show night, Setara is cut from the competition and sings her last song. Caught up in emotion, she struts across the stage and lets her headscarf fall to her neck. Though her moves are tame by Western standards, her fellow competitors are shocked backstage. Knowing the impact of what she has done, Setara is visibly shaken after her performance. A week later, the country is in an uproar about the incident; a cabinet minister speaks against Afghan Star on
television, and many say Setara "deserves to be killed." Despite the dangers, Setara returns home to Herat. Her worried family cries when she is back home.
As the finale arrives, the whole country is buzzing about the final two contestants, Rafi and Hameed (Lema made it to the final three before being cut). Though they are no longer in the competition, several women in the audience giddily show their support for Lema and
Setara by not wearing burkhas. After the Afghan Star is announced, Rafi and Hameed become household names, while Lema (having also received death threats) lives under protection of the city government in Kandahar. For her part, Setara has returned to Kabul
to record an album. Despite pressure from the government, Tolo TV continues to air Afghan Star.
Produced and Directed by Havana Marking; Executive Producers: Martin Herring, Mike Lerner and Jahid Mohseni; Camera & Sound: Phil Stebbing; Editor: Ash Jenkins; Original Music Score: Simon Russell.