Eastern Promise: The Afghan Pop Wars

afghanstarphoto06“If there was no music, then the world would be silent” is the opening sentence of Afghan Star, uttered by a child blinded by war just after he sings his melody to the camera. Originally commissioned as a standard television documentary, the colorful excesses of this project reel were taken up and transformed into a cinema worthy docu style film. The powerful lamenting thrust that it starts with is later dropped and a simple subtle message takes over: the Afghan people are finally breathing hope into their nation and they will no longer be blinded by political impasses and religious chimeras.

A winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opening at New York’s Cinema Village on Friday the 26th, Afghan Star is an inspired glimpse into modern-day Afghanistan, a country ravaged and stripped down after 30 years of nearly constant war and psychological and territorial oppression. Set in Kabul, it follows eleven contestants battling for a chance for pop stardom in the country’s equivalent of American Idol. Although the setting is different, the well-franchised format is familiar. The film follows the whole cast, from the brave producers of the show, Tolo TV, to the contestants over the course of the tournament. Reserved personal views about the contest’s symbolic nature are revealed, and an insight into the various factions or tribes that still divide the country internally and who effectively rig the votes to support their own candidate. We see the pioneering spirit of the young TV channel, pushing an untested genre within a very young TV studio, and a fleeting look at the more passionate and vocal supporters, such as the Khan family, confident that the very existence of the show is the mark of real change.

The reforming and more modernising aspects of the contest, of women dancing and singing on TV, ends up demonstrating the boundaries surrounding Tolo TV’s venture into global pop culture. The fiery female finalist is expelled, disgraced and has to flee Kabul receiving death threats, the final stage of the contest is threatened by the Taliban, and a law preventing ‘music inspired body movement on screen’ is enforced. A frustrating reminder of what an exhausting parallel universe the Afghani people are being subjected to by what could be seen as an altogether effete political force.

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Unavoidable are the comparisons to the $200 million dollar profit slam of Slumdog Millionaire or the glossy vampiric hyper-productions of American evening TV. The message here is more compelling though, and questions the reality of a ‘document’, leaving you wondering if the director, Havana Marking, is dealing with a subject bigger and more profound than her camera and journalistic skills can capture.

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A poetic resonance of carefully considered images patiently moves across a rather harsh factual style, revealing the troubling reality of these people, still struggling through the strict divisions and sexual inequalities. There is a sense that the youth of Afghanistan no longer understand the quintessence of their beliefs and there is a suspicion that the nation has been misunderstood and forced into wars and an isolation that the majority of the population does not condone. The faces are so matured by war that you quickly forget the young subjects of this film are still in their early-twenties. Footage of the once vibrant and open city of Kabul in the late 1970s leaves you bewildered and defeated.

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Afghan Star is part of a repertoire of thematic films travelling as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Look into My Eyes a examination of Anti-Semitism today by Naftaly Gilksberg, Pray the Devil Back to Hell a Liberian female activist movement story directed by Gini Reticker and Crude a moving documentary about the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’ will all be part of this international festival visiting Toronto, San Francisco and New York in June and July.

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