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Movie Review

Afghan Star

From repression to expression: ‘Afghan Star’ offers a powerful look at post-Taliban talent show performers

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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“Afghan Star,’’ the TV show, is exactly what “American Idol’’ would look like if the contestants were playing for the biggest stakes imaginable: political and social freedom, gender equality, a chance to heal a country 30 years under the yokes of war and religious dictatorship. “Afghan Star,’’ the documentary about that TV show, is one of the most hopeful and heart-rending movies I’ve seen this year.

The governing irony is that one culture’s pop junk is another’s salvation. When the Taliban were taken out of power in 2001, it was no longer a punishable crime in Afghanistan to watch TV, dance, or listen to popular music. Women could sing in public without being whipped. As broadcast networks blossomed, Tolo TV built “Afghan Star’’ explicitly on the “American Idol’’ model. Even more explicitly, the producers used the contest to promote a national, inter-ethnic unity. “Our aim is to take people’s minds from weapons to music,’’ says the show’s host, Daoud Sediqi, a Ryan Seacrest with actual gravitas.

The movie, which won directing and audience awards at this year’s Sundance, follows the show’s third season, launched in October 2007, and focuses on four contestants from the more than 2,000 who auditioned. Two are women, which in itself is remarkable: Setara Hussainzada from Herat and Lima Sahar from Kandahar. The latter describes taking singing lessons in secret, hiding her music books and computer from the Taliban.

Lima accepts her new freedoms gingerly, in contrast to the more impetuous Setara, who causes a national scandal when she dances and lets her head-covering slip during a televised performance. To the home audience, it’s the equivalent of Sinead O’Connor ripping up a picture of the Pope.

Setara doesn’t really want to be the Courtney Love of Afghanistan. She just wants to express herself with a youthful passion for which her countrymen (and women) aren’t ready. The fallout from her performance is brutal, raging from shocked disavowals to overt death threats. In these scenes, filmmaker Havana Marking shows a country struggling to redefine itself after decades of repression. How much freedom is too much? Some of it? Any of it?

The men have it much easier. Kabul’s Hameed Sakhizada and Rafi Naabzada, from Mazar-i-Sharif, are both young and pretty, westernized without being Western. They each wield massive followings who back their respective boys with the fervor of British football fans or our own Red Sox Nation. For all intents and purposes, they’re both Kris Allen, yet each of them has an awareness of what they mean to a society struggling to its feet. “This country was like a house that no one was living in,’’ says Rafi, implying that the lights are coming on again, one by one.

“Afghan Star’’ has a great deal of fun with the national mania for the show, watching makeshift aerials pop up across Kabul, marveling at the wealthy entrepreneur who buys 10,000 SIM cards to vote for Lima, sitting quietly by as a little girl plays “Afghan Star’’ with her (veiled) Barbie dolls. For the final telecast, 11 million viewers - a third of the country - tuned in, and the film understands that while voting for a singer by cellphone may be one of the sillier forms of democracy, it’s still an immensely powerful one for people who’ve long lacked a voice.

Marking also films an Islamic council of scholars inveighing against the show’s “immorality’’ and predicting wholesale social collapse as a result. This would be humorous if it weren’t so murderously meant and if a democratic Afghanistan weren’t still an idea very much in play. “Afghan Star’’ yearns for a divided country to be brought together by the most primal joy of all, yet by the final scenes Setara has been forced into hiding, and since the film’s release Lima has fled to Pakistan as well. Host Sediqi has been granted political asylum in America.

By all means, take your “American Idol’’-besotted children to see this movie. Maybe they’ll come away with a knowledge of how much can really ride on a song.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

AFGHAN STAR Directed by: Havana Marking

Starring: Setara Hussainzada, Lima Sahar, Hameed Sakhizada, Rafi Naabzada, Daoud Sediqi

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 87 minutes

Unrated

In English, Dari, and Pashtun, with subtitles

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