Though dancing is banned and performers risk their lives, Afghanistan now has its own "Pop Idol". Gary Moskowitz interviews Havana Marking, director of "Afghan Star”, an award-winning documentary about the controversial music contest ...


Two young men in flashy white suits take the stage. With perfectly coiffed hair and light touches of makeup, they perform a few short, well-rehearsed pop songs in the hopes of earning fame and a pile of cash. A live audience cheers and claps while as many as 11m viewers watch on television. "American Idol"? "Pop Idol"? No, it’s "Afghan Star", Afghanistan’s own pop music contest.

Launched in 2005, the show has lured more than 2,000 contestants each season, including women and people from Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups. This is despite death threats from the country's fundamentalist Muslims. (Lima Shahar, pictured above, placed third in last year's contest, and is now in hiding in the Pakistani city of Peshawa. "My life is under threat, everybody is threatening to kill me. It's all because I participated in the 'Afghan Star'," she told the AFP.) The grand finale of the fourth season took place in Kabul on March 20th.

After 30 years of war, occupation and Taliban rule, which banned music outright (and still metes out death threats to the sacrilegious), "Afghan Star" has emerged with a wide following. Time magazine called the show a “subversive hit”. Roughly one-third of Afghanistan's residents tune in every week, voting for their favourite contestants by texting on their mobile phones.

Kids watchThis volatile mix of globalisation, technology, pop culture, politics and religion is the subject of "Afghan Star", a documentary by Havana Marking. Her film chronicles the three months leading up to the show’s third-season finale, from the regional auditions to the final performances in Kabul. She follows the lives of contestants and their families, and interviews fans, political and religious leaders and the show's producers.

"Afghan Star" won both an audience award and a directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But the film cannot be shown in Afghanistan, owing to Marking's interviews with women. And the show’s popular host, Daoud Sediqi, seems to have decided to stay in the states, after flying from Afghanistan to Utah for Sundance.

After the documentary's recent screening at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London, Marking spoke briefly with More Intelligent Life about Afghanistan, the music industry and how technology has brought hope to a hardened people.

More Intelligent Life: What was it like making a documentary film in Afghanistan?

Havana Marking: There were three huge bombs that went off just in my first week filming there. But things in that type of environment change so frequently. I’ve travelled a lot in third-world countries, so I guess I’m used to it. But Afghanistan really was a huge shock. It’s so raw, and there’s so many people struggling, so many buildings bombed out.

MIL: Tolo TV, the producer of the "Afghan Star" TV show, broadcasts to 14 cities in Afghanistan. What was it like hanging out with them?

HM: There is such a young energy among the people that work there. They really believe that they can change things, and that they are changing things. They have shows that offer political satire, and their own version of “The Apprentice.”

Afghan Star documentaryMIL: It’s pretty incredible that the reality-TV, "Pop Idol" culture of the West has reached Afghanistan, of all places. Do you see this as a positive thing?

HM: The idea of the talent contest is nothing new. And it works well in a television format. India has its own pop idol show. And Indian pop-culture is the most influential in Afghanistan; much more so than Western music. I see this as positive change. It’s helping to create a music industry in a country that until recently did not allow music at all. Now there are outlets. And I really do believe in the power of music; it’s a powerful medium for healing. Everyone in Afghanistan knows someone who has died recently, in horrible ways. [Music] is helping heal some of that, by giving them a break.

MIL: How did making this film affect you on a personal level?

HM: The Afghan people were inspiring to me. The Bush government made huge mistakes in Afghanistan, but despite that, people are dreaming of a time of peace and education. I want to keep making films like this. TV can be so dumbed down, but I don’t think you have to dumb down content to make it compelling for audiences. 

"Afghan Star" is
screening in London over the next two weeks. The Human Rights Film Festival will take place in New York from June 11th to 25th. Zeitgeist Films is the distributor in America.

Picture credit: "Afghan Star" documentary

(Gary Moskowitz is a journalist and a musician, now based in London. His own website can be found here.)