Sing Your Life
By Joanne Nucho
Dir. Havana Marking, U.K./Afghanistan, Zeitgeist Films
Afghan Star, Havana Marking’s new documentary about the seemingly throwaway pop television program of the same name, is deceptively light in its tone. Even though its subject may be little more than Afghanistan’s answer to American Idol, the director attempts to center her film around the notion that the show is in fact a new and important social event. Through interviews with the contestants, fans, and production staff, Marking assembles an intriguing look into the making of a popular sensation in a country where television had been banned for decades by hard-line Taliban rule.
Yet while the film’s subject matter is certainly fascinating enough, Marking at times seems to suffer from a lack of confidence that her audience will understand the significance of the show, resorting to a few awkward and simplistic overtures that equate the premiere of Afghan Star to the birth of democracy in a fledgling nation. At one point, early in the film, a title card appears onscreen announcing that this is the first time most Afghanis have been able to vote—albeit via mobile text message—here electing their favorite singer to move on to the next level of the show’s competition. While this comparison could be dismissed as merely banal, an overstatement belying a certain truth, it is precisely this fuzzy, vague definition of “freedom” and “democracy” that can produce a dangerously complacent Western citizenry content to exercise their “freedom of choice” over such matters as Coca-Cola or Pepsi.
Despite the crude overtures made by these opening sentiments, there are many moments that clearly contradict the implication that “freedom” has arrived in Kabul. In fact, most of the film confirms that the overwhelming majority of Afghanis continue to live in crushing poverty and under the repressive rule of fundamentalist interpretations of religion, including the Taliban, which exerts an obvious force in many areas in Afghanistan.
The program’s final four contestants, two men and two women, indicate some of Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity (Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun are the three groups represented but there are also other ethnic groups in the country) and seemingly a deliberate choice on the part of the show’s producers, a nod towards inclusion and cooperation among tribes who have different languages and practices, and who have, according to many of their narratives, been in conflict through Afghanistan’s recent history. Via profiles and stories of these four performers, the film provides a peek into the specific outlooks of each of these ethnic groups in a way that refreshingly does not condescend or essentialize. What’s more, it appears that the appeal of these performers has reached beyond the bounds of their own particular ethnicity, and that, through the program, there is at least some gesture towards inclusion and appreciation.
That being said, the two male singers—sweet-faced 19-year-old Rafi and classically trained, dashing Hammeed—face far fewer obstacles than their female counterparts, Setara and Lima. This is especially true for Setara, often accused of showing immodesty, primarily because she dances onstage, evidently a taboo for female performers (though it may be for a male performer as well, though this is not addressed in the film). In her final performance, Setara lets loose, removing her headscarf and dancing vigorously; immediately, we see her fellow contestants shaking their heads and criticizing her actions, especially Lima, who insists that she would never do such things. All three remaining contestants, perhaps fearing reprisals themselves, constantly denounce Setara’s actions, saying that she crossed a line of impiety and immodesty.
Setara’s situation gets worse, and she begins receiving death threats, and her family, far away in Herat, worries about her safety as they receive daily word that their daughter has been killed. Eventually, Setara is no longer able to maintain her apartment in Kabul and must return to her hometown. She is visibly terrified, and after a harrowing ride through the city, arrives home to her tearful family’s embrace. It’s heartbreaking to watch, especially coming after the interviews Marking conducts with men and boys in Herat confirming that there are many who would punish her for her actions. And despite the fact that Lima attempted to stay modest in dress and actions her safety was eventually threatened as well. It seems dubious that being on Afghan Star really was a good idea at all for these young women.
Perhaps the film’s most intriguing character is the show’s director, a fast-talking Kabul-wood entrepreneur who spent years working as a clandestine television repairman under Taliban rule. In one scene, he takes us to the site of his former repair shop and explains how he was able to smuggle in the televisions that needed to be fixed overnight. Because of the very real danger of his former job, he appears nonplussed by the threats he received from powerful clerics who insist that Afghan Star be cancelled. He also strongly claims that his program was a step toward “progress” for his country, that the reinstitution of mass media and entertainment culture was a huge part of the rebuilding process following the Taliban’s banning television and film. In a poignant scene, the director returns to the cinema in Kabul he frequented in his youth, now completely destroyed. He wants to show the world: Afghanistan was not always like this.
The tenacity and courage of the Afghanis themselves onscreen is something to be admired, and Marking’s feature debut is overall impressive in its compassionate depiction of them, some taking incredible personal risks in order to fulfill their dreams. But Afghan Star too often falls back on trite sentiments. The film may try to offer a hopeful message about the power of music to unite people and bring joy to a country, but of course this isn’t Footloose, and music will not set Afghanistan free. The importation of celebrity worship, cell-phone democracy, and pop idols is here too often overdetermined as “progress,” not only by Marking’s narrative, but also by the interviewed Afghani fans themselves. There’s a level of self-congratulation here, which largely relies on the filmmaker’s elision of much of the history of how Afghanistan got to this point in the first place. Despite a nod to the country’s more stylish past with some stock 1970s footage of a hip college rock band performing in happier times, there is no acknowledgment of the United States’ funding of the same kinds of fundamentalist forces so rightly denounced in this film to fight the Russian invasion. In a sense, eliding this history also undermines the power of the film itself: How can we buy into the notion of the liberating potential of western pop culture on Afghanistan while ignoring the causes of Afghanistan’s undoing?