Directed by Havana Marking
With the recent election of a new moderate parliament in Lebanon and the spirit of openness that preceded the brutal crackdowns in Iran, everyone is talking about "The Obama Effect". But has anyone thought to consider "The American Idol Effect"? In Afghanistan, where presidential elections are scheduled for this August, the ejection of the Taliban from the government and the subsequent relaxation of Sharia law has re-opened a view to the west and allowed for new and rapid cultural development. Director Havana Marking's new documentary examines one such outgrowth this cultural flowering: Afghan Star, an American Idol-like television show in which ordinary people are invited to compete in a singing contest for a cash prize and record deal. The documentary follows four hopefuls, two women and two men, as they advance through eliminations and enter the final round of competition. Like its American counterpart, the show attracts the attention of the entire country, prompting people of every age, ethnicity and gender to tune in and vote by cellular phone. However, in a war-weary country recently loosed from the grip of an extremist regime, the democratic process that governs the show, its modern example of rapid upward mobility and the uniting force of popular entertainment proves to have political and social implications greater than predicted.
Although it may be unfair to view Afghanistan's rehabilitation through the lens of a distinctly American trend, especially one as trivial and shallow as American Idol, this lens works well to facilitate cultural translation. Multiple scenes of families gathering around a glowing screen, teenagers convening in cafes and veiled women swooning at the sight of the male contestants access a common ground between Afghanistan and Western nations. Yet with the country's recent history and the Taliban itself still looming over the populace, this lens also highlights the differences. Angered by the resurgence of singing and dancing, members of the Taliban target the female contests in particular, delivering death threats and eventually forcing them to go into hiding. While in the States, American Idol serves as fodder for water cooler banter, Afghan Star functions as a radical unifying force, bringing together contestants from various ethnic groups to engage in artistic expression and rebuilding the displaced sense of community, albeit as a fan base. Well-paced, insightful and by turns both dark and funny, Marking's documentary shows that for all our differences, we all enjoy the dream of becoming famous and the thrill of real time participation in entertainment. Let's just hope they don't adopt some of our less savory programs. I'd hate for audiences to have to endure an Afghan version of The Hills.
Opens June 26