How A Talent Show Is Revolutionizing Afghanistan

Photo: afghanstardocumentary.com
Photo: afghanstardocumentary.com

I’m on a documentary kick these days. There’s something about doc films that I love far more than regular movies. Maybe because they’re real stories and nothing is more interesting than a true story. In fact, there are days when I wonder why fiction even needs to exist at all because how can it possibly compete with reality for intrigue, mystery, unexpected twists, and adventure? Human beings are astonishing creatures and there are so many untold stories out there. 

Last night, Jason and I watched “Afghan Star,” which was recommended by a friend as “the best documentary I’ve ever seen.” She was right; it was excellent. “Afghan Star” is the name of a TV talent show, similar to American Idol, that started up in Kabul just a few years ago. The film follows four of the final ten contestants as they campaign and perform for the coveted prize as Afghanistan’s star performer and a cash prize. It might not seem like much by our Western cultural standards, but when you consider what’s had to happen to get to the point where women can sing on stage, it’s astonishing and courageous. (It was illegal to sing under the Taliban.)

What makes it extra special is that viewers vote for their favourite contestants via SMS and this is often their first-ever encounter with democracy. Also impressive is how the competition brings together people from different tribal backgrounds — Hazara, Pashtun, etc. — people who normally would have nothing to do with each other, yet are voting for each other in the competition. Even some Taliban fighters vote for their favourite female performer who’s from their own region. Talk about revolutionary. Apparently, one third of Afghanistan’s population watched the final episode of Afghan Star.

The film showed a highly personal, on-the-ground view of what it’s like to be young in Afghanistan. They’re all so hopeful, so determined on their quest for peace, so tired of war. The general attitude among the young people interviewed is that music is the best way to transform the country by bringing people together and giving them alternatives to war through mutual love of song. Of course there are the traditional nay-sayers who even go so far as to say that Setara, one of the competitors, deserves to die for breaking out into a spontaneous dance on stage, but these appear to be outnumbered by the young people who are simply thrilled that this kind of competition is now allowed. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been shown in Afghanistan because the producers fear for Setara’s safety.

What I found particularly striking was some old film footage of Kabul University’s campus in the 1970s and a university students’ concert. It looked like something straight out of Canada’s past — men and women mingling together, wearing bellbottoms and tight sequined shirts, rocking out on stage with electric guitars and a lead female singer with a mullet. To think that a country can do such a tremendous 180-degree turnaround in such a short period of time is absolutely terrifying. And yet, because that freedom was relatively recent, that makes it more hopeful, too. People still remember those times, so they have a standard for which to strive — and this film shows that it’s actually happening. Interestingly, when I Googled the show, I discovered a great webpage, 72 000 Facebook followers, and an active Twitter feed. Modernization is clearly happening. Go, Afghan Star!!! 

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