Afghan Star (2010): HBO Documentary

After 30 years of war and five devastating years of Taliban rule, pop culture is beginning to return to Afghanistan.  Since 2005, millions have been tuning in to Tolo TV’s wildly popular “American Idol”-style series “Afghan Star.”

The HBO documentary AFGHAN STAR offers a window into the country’s tenuous, ongoing struggle for modernity.

The film won World Cinema Directing and World Cinema Audience Awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Fest.

Observing the Afghani people’s relationship to its pop culture, director Havana Marking’s moving documentary tells the dramatic stories of four young finalists:  two men and two very brave women who risk their lives to sing.  Marking gained unprecedented access into the lives of contestants, fans and producers to explore a pop culture phenomenon that departs from Afghanistan’s long-standing traditions.

When the competition is narrowed down to seven contestants, excitement in the country reaches a fever pitch.  Events take a dramatic turn when one contestant, Setara, causes an uproar by dancing on stage, and worse, letting her head scarf fall to reveal her hair, actions that put her life in danger.  Though the performance is tame by Western standards, her fellow competitors are shocked, and Setara herself is visibly shaken when she realizes what has happened.  A week later, with the country in turmoil over the incident, a cabinet minister speaks out against the program and many say Setara “deserves to be killed.”  She goes home to Herat, where her worried family awaits.

As the finale nears, the whole country is buzzing about Rafi and Hameed, the final contestants. Though Lema and Setara are no longer in the competition, several women in the audience giddily show their support by not wearing burkhas.  After the Afghan Star is announced, Rafi and Hameed become household names.  Lema, who also received death threats, lives under protection of the city government in Kandahar, and Setara returns to Kabul to record an album.  Despite pressure from the government, Tolo TV continues to air “Afghan Star.”



AFGHAN STAR is produced and directed by Havana Marking;

executive producers, Martin Herring, Mike Lerner and Jahid Mohseni;

camera & sound, Phil Stebbing;

editor, Ash Jenkins;

original music score, Simon Russell.