We are a people united across vast lands, diverse cultures, mutually exclusive religions, and economic competition; united in our love of utterly mediocre pop music. Something ingrained in our genetic code longs for empty refrains about vague concepts of love or some easily marketable facsimile of, for the lyrics and rhythms of shit sounds pretty much the same beyond relatively slight regional differences. The undead beast that is American Idol has spawned unholy clones in every nation of the earth, each with purported experts who hold forth on who is and shall be the next great music star. Strange how they all sound like shit and influence virtually nothing in the pop culture swamp. Though I loathe every aspect of this circle jerk of a show, I must admit that it has resulted in the production of one moving bit of art. So it is not completely worthless by inspiring Afghan Star, one of the few bright spots of Afghani television for its war-weary inhabitants. After a decade of rule by the Taliban, the American invasion and installation of a puppet government resulted in the official repeal of conservative laws banning dance, music, and women not sealed in a burlap bag.
Afghan Star debuted on television almost immediately, operating on a shoestring budget, giving the beleaguered masses a forum in which to prove to the world that they are worthy of star status. This fails often, but the audience, approximately a third of the entire country, vote with their mobiles in a flourish of democracy. What in more comfortable societies is a parade of shameless cheese is in Afghanistan a chance for people to express themselves in defiance of religious extremists. And these extremists are always handy for a public death threat given legitimacy by Sharia courts and the traditions of old. Afghan Star looks at the competition of 2005, in which three women make the finals. The songs they sing are about as substantial as a wisp of gossamer, but their presence on a stage is no less than a triumph over hatefully conservative ways. This is not just a shot fired across the bow of misogyny, but a show of national unity in a nation that has no sense of itself. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras all share the same stage, and the contestants betray very little tribalism while individuals spend inordinate amounts of time campaigning for their favorites. Despite the cultural phenomenon this show became, conservatives glared disapprovingly, not least at the women who dared to emerge from the shadows.
The documentary itself is fairly straightforward, spending time with the contestants and their home towns. Interestingly, the crew hangs out with a family that follows the show, and these women are more than public about both showing off their hair and their beauty. A common refrain from many subjects in this documentary is “I don’t care if the Taliban kills me.” If only they were exaggerating. The most remarkable contestant is Setara, who hails from a medium sized town and is defiantly liberal. She is narcissistic, self-involved, and seems only to care about acquiring a vast fan base, and is the sort of woman you go to great lengths to avoid. Yet she is the source of the most triumphant moment in Afghan Star when she is voted out of the competition. She is eliminated, and must sing her final song. It is another forgettable tune, but as the music starts, she does something truly bizarre – she dances. Fluidly moving with the music, she doffs her headscarf and sings her ass off, and for a moment the film reaches for greatness by exposing a sobering paradox in the show. All of her fellow contestants shake their heads in contempt, avert their eyes in horror, this brazen whore who moments ago was a treasured compatriot. It seems old habits die hard, and even those who spoke of Setara inspiring national unity in the next breath predicted her lifeless body in a desert hole. Protesters took to the streets, and religious courts called for her head with all the care and grace of a chef calling for a ribeye. Afghan Star opened some doors, and brought Afghanistan a little closer to its cultural roots by casting aside reactionary tradition, but this is a true cultural war. An eye-opening segment shows some street scenes from the 1980s, with Afghani women and men walking around with truly bad 1980s hair and clothing, rock bands with moribund synth-pop, and all those things we treasured during the Reagan years. These things go in cycles, and Afghan Star is just a rising point on the sine wave. It provides more than a forum for self-expression – it opens old wounds and exposes a country with a schizophrenic sense of self.
Unlike so many documentaries that examine the life of artists struggling against adversity, the stakes are made clear in Afghan Star. Setara is evicted, she returns to her family, only to find that rumors have been circulated aggressively that she has already been killed. Her mother and father receive her, already in mourning. The other woman in the competition, more conservative in appearance, is forced to flee the country as her death is ordered. All of their lives are touched, and not for the better. Perhaps later their children will be able to express themselves, if only with slightly greater ease than their parents. Their dreams are just as facile and pointless as ours, but then, that is entirely the point. The people featured in Afghan Star believe it is worth risking one’s life to go after even the meaningless dream of fame as a vapid pop star. This may not seem like much to those from nations where freedom is taken for granted, but then, we are consumed by our own superficial dreams, and do not need to tempt death to pursue them.