Amidst the turbulence in the world of pop culture comes good news from, of all places, Afghanistan. At the start of the new documentary Afghan Star, we see a line of men, with numbered tags on them. My reaction was predictably knee-jerk — what the hell kind of lockstep-fundamentalism thing were these guys up to? As it turned out, they were auditioning for the wildly popular TV show from which the film takes its name. In other words, putting themselves through the same sort of fame-seeking ordeal that thousands of people the world over subject themselves to on the road toward Idol-atry, complete with judges who roll their eyes and clap their hands over their disbelieving ears.

“Afghan Star” is broadcast by Tolo TV, the country’s first commercial station, which started in the wake of the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. The show’s first season, in 2005, was a success. The documentary (which begins its New York run today, then rolls out nationwide) follows its third season, which began in October 2007. By then the show was as much an institution as American Idol — but it was also a headache for Muslim clerics, who were offended by its pop premise. And it was about to get worse.

The British-made documentary, which won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival this year, follows four of the contestants in their rise to the top. Its first-time director, Havana Marking, spent four months in Kabul. The contestants were born into conflict; the burden of memory is borne by those who run the show. It’s a jolt to see home movie footage from carefree times before the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and Operation Enduring Freedom, and the bombed-out shell of a movie theater, blown to bits by warring Mujahedeen factions. But the ceaseless warfare that has plagued the country is largely sidelined. Not unlike Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, the film focuses on the internal, eternal conflict, when the creative impulse collides with a mandated piety.

The contestants hail from different tribes. Rafi, a smooth-faced 19-year-old, is made to order for a show like this, here and everywhere. Apolitical, he wants the country’s soul “to come alive again,” but isn’t about to rock the boat to do it. (In a way, he does do it; he’s so cute the girls in Mazar e Sharif steal glances at him from behind their burqas, a no-no.) The classically trained Hameed represents the Hazaras, the group most targeted by the Taliban; his support is the most ardent.

On “Afghan Star,” votes count. They pour in from cellphones, and give everyone a stake in the outcome. The gender and ethnic dividing lines are dissolved as in few other aspects of Afghan life, where a male-dominated tribal elder system is still in place. This already makes the clerics apprehensive. Then the women strut their stuff on the show.

Afghan Star focuses on two. Lima (pictured) comes from Kandahar, the fundamentalist foundation of the nation. Going on the show makes her a pariah at home, but she insists she needs the $1,000 prize to survive, so she risks her life by practicing her music in secret. The most poignant story, however, is that of 21-year-old Setara, from Herat. Moved by the music Setara, who dresses like one of her Bollywood heroines, literally lets her hair down on the show, and busts the tiniest of moves onstage — enough to get her branded a “whore” and a “degenerate” and worse, as the men throughout the country are depressingly universal in their condemnation, death threats are made and she’s forced into hiding. It’s Footloose with fatwas.

But the show (which, by giving citizens something to watch, gooses the economy by getting them to get their broken TVs fixed) must go on, despite rumors of interference. “Afghan Star” lacks the high-gloss panache of its global cousins but its heart is in the same place. As interesting as the subject is, however, the film’s dramatic flaw is built-in. I’m not going to spoil things for you, except to say that certain rules in the entertainment-verse are inflexible no matter where they’re applied. The ones we root for, the ones with the most compelling or heart-wrenching stories, don’t necessarily triumph (nor, fortunately, does the very worst happen). The smooth, good-looking charmers always have an edge. It’s reassuring, though, that even in Afghanistan, pop culture finds a way…

…though not without difficulty. Here’s a YouTube bit from the second season finale of the show, where the first season’s winner sang his subsequent hit. Looks familiar. The comments, however, show just how close to the bone this innocuous program cuts:

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About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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