In the 2010 HBO documentary “Afghan Star,” Setara, a young singer, was voted off the “American Idol”-style show of the same name. Caught up in the emotion of the moment, she danced across the stage and her head scarf slipped, revealing her hair. The incident sparked an uproar in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where music, dancing and TV were completely banned just ten years ago, with some traditionalists saying Setara “deserves to be killed.”
In the new documentary SILENCING THE SONG: AN AFGHAN FALLEN STAR, “Afghan Star” director Havana Marking revisits Setara as she deals with ever-present threats to her safety and starts a new life as a wife and mother-to-be, while continuing to nurture dreams of becoming a pop-music idol.
The most notorious character on the country’s popular singing competition show “Afghan Star,” Setara pushed the boundaries of modesty. Though she enraged traditionalists, Setara was adored by many young people who admired her courage and determination to challenge the restrictions on women’s freedom in public.
Six months later, as SILENCING THE SONG picks up her story, Setara has abandoned her musical career for marriage and motherhood, but has not lost her independent spirit. Explaining why she has assumed a traditional Muslim role for women, Setara notes, “When I realized that I wasn’t secure, when I realized I was alone, and I didn’t have anyone in my life, I thought, ‘If I get married, then somebody will support me’.”
Despite being married, she remains in constant fear for her life. She is unable to leave the house unaccompanied, and her marriage is hidden from her husband’s family because they do not want to be associated with someone so controversial. Recalling her lost independence, Setara says, “When you are not married you can do anything you want.”
Like many Afghan women, she lacks access to proper health care, and when it becomes clear that all is not right with her pregnancy, Setara worries for her child’s life. Weeks before she gives birth, however, Setara’s mother – who was one of her strongest supporters during the “Afghan Star” controversy – visits from her hometown of Herat. A religious teacher tells Setara’s mother that the baby’s health difficulties were caused by a curse from one of her enemies, citing “a magic power” that “locked the baby inside.”
After a two-week stay in an emergency children’s hospital, newborn baby Mohammed is just strong enough to return home, though he still faces many problems. And despite all of the traumatic events in Setara’s life, she still displays a glimmer of her optimistic spirit, hoping some day to share her passion for singing with her son.
Havana Marking’s film illustrates the tensions between gender and culture in Afghanistan, underscoring the slow pace of equality for women.
SILENCING THE SONG: AN AFGHAN FALLEN STAR is directed by Havana Marking; camera by Phil Stebbing; editor, Dan Nelson; producers, Mike Lerner and Havana Marking; executive producers, Jahid Mohseni and Martin Herring; music by Simon Russell. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.