Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Contestant Lima Sahar (Photo: Zeitgeist Films)

Produced & Directed by
Havana Marking
Released by Zeitgeist Films
Pashtu & Dari with English subtitles
UK/Afghanistan. 87 min. Not Rated  

The pop idol contest phenomenon from England has had a surprising impact around the world. The entertaining and pointed Afghan Star reveals the power of an old-fashioned televised talent show in a country where voting is a newfangled notion.

Beyond following the usual format of sympathetically getting up close and personal with talented, attractive young competitors, director Havana Marking was a journalist before making this, her first feature film, and with no narration she parses the cultural, political, and social context behind Afghanistan’s biggest hit show.

The first essential ingredient to the show’s success is that, since 2004, there has been a successful independent commercial television network and affiliated radio stations broadcasting throughout the country, with locally produced news, comedies, dramas, and talk shows. Seen in action, the show’s scrappy staff enthusiastically tackles power and equipment problems. But what motivates the audience to jerry rig batteries, pool resources, and cram into every possible viewing spot to watch any kind of TV is their show Afghan Star.

Marking’s film demolishes Western stereotypes of the country. She intimately follows the contestants, their families, and their fans over three months during the show’s third season, from regional auditions to the finale in Kabul. Marking captures not only the exuberance of a country where 60% of the population is under 21, but its ethnic, geographic, and religious diversity with a proud musical heritage that drew from the Sufis, Persia, and Bollywood before being banned by the Taliban. (There are also clips from a brief time in the 1980’s when even rock ‘n’ roll flourished in the country.)

Open to all, the auditions draw over two thousand entrants singing in a variety of styles and abilities. The documentary quickly gets down to the four final contestants, two men and, surprisingly, two women, each from a distinctive demographic. The urbane Rafi could be a 19-year-old teen idol poseur anywhere in the world. No wonder the girls are straining through their burkhas to get a good look at him when he passes by. In contrast, Hameed is a young classically trained musician who feels strongly he is representing the formerly suppressed culture of the Hazara minority, who passionately rally behind him.

The women face more acute challenges. Lima, 25, is focused on helping her poor family by winning the $5,000 top prize, five times the average annual income, but she is from the ultra-conservative city of Kandahar and has to practice in secret. Twenty-one-year-old Setara from Herat in western Afghanistan is a modern woman who fully enjoys singing. She tends to get carried away with the spontaneity and freedom of performing to the extent that, to the shock of the nation, her head scarf slips.

As Afghan Star fever grips the country and families argue and buy cell phones just to be able to vote, the emotions and suspense lie not just in who will win, but if a backlash will derail the contestants’ dreams. Objections from elders and religious leaders fulminate about how the show violates Islamic law, and the participants’ fears are not just paranoia—a young, westernized woman VJ on the show’s channel was killed in 2005. Nevertheless, a fourth season of the singing competition just concluded.  Nora Lee Mandel
June 26, 2009



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us