Afghan Star (2009): Havana Marking’s Timely Docu, Top Winner of Sundance Docu Competition

Winner of the Directing and Audience Awards at the 2009 Sundance World Documentary competition, Afghan Star, Havana Marking’s timely and moving film follows the dramatic stories of four young finalists—two men and two women—as they hazard everything to become the nation’s favorite performer.

Some social background is necessary: After 30 years of war and Taliban-rule, pop culture has returned to Afghanistan. Afghan Star, an American Idol-style TV series, is searching the country for the next generation of music stars. Over 2000 people are auditioning, and three women have come forward to try their luck. The organizers, Tolo TV, believe with this program they can “move people from guns to music.”

But in a troubled country like Afghanistan, even music is controversial. Considered sacrilegious by the Mujahiddeen and outright banned by the Taliban (1996-2001), music has come to symbolize freedom for the youth. While the conflict still rages many of those taking part are literally risking their lives.

The old guard warlords and religious elite have more to worry about than just music.  Millions of people watch the show (11 million—a third of the country—watched the final episode) and vote by SMS from their cell phone for their favorite singers.  For many, this is the first time they have encountered democracy. One man or one women equals one vote.  All—different genders, ethnic groups, age sectors—are equal.

This is a highly radical idea in a country still essentially based on a male-dominated tribal elder system. For the first time young people, ethnic minorities and women have an arena in which to shine.  And at last, the people are allowed to vote for their choices.

This documentary follows the 3 month process from the regional auditions to the final in Kabul. Behind the scenes at all times, we gained unprecedented access to and illuminating insights into the lives of contestants, fans, and producers.

The contestants that the film follows reveal the true hopes and dreams of Afghan youth: their desire for peace, education, and freedom to express themselves.  About 60% of the Afghan population is under 21, and despite the backdrop of conflict, corruption and repression, they can be funny, articulate, and ultimately inspiring.

By observing the Afghani people’s relationship to its pop culture, Afghan Star is the perfect window into a country’s tenuous, ongoing struggle for modernity. What Americans consider frivolous entertainment is downright revolutionary in this troubled part of the world.