Sunday, June 21, 2009

HRW ‘09: Afghan Star

Yes, there really is an Afghan version of American Idol. The good news is that the show has provided many Afghans their first experience with the democratic voting process, which they have readily embraced. The bad news is it also illustrates fundamental Islam’s persistent hostility towards women, when even the most innocuous “dance” generates death threats for one female contestant. Such is the mixed report card on contemporary Afghan society presented in Havana Marking’s Afghan Star (trailer here), a documentary of the unlikely talent show screening tonight as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in advance of its theatrical opening this Friday.

Operating relatively free from both religious and state interference, the Tolo network has allowed Afghan Star’s producers to pursue their original conception for the show. Idealist capitalists, they envisioned the talent show as a meritocratic contest that would transcend ethnic identification and instill a confidence in the democratic process. So far, the results have been mixed. As Marking documents, the Afghan Star followers have adopted the techniques of democratic campaign to a far greater extent the American Idol fans, but their support is almost entirely based on ethnic identification.

Marking follows four finalists, two of whom are women in what would appear to be a significant social development. Hailing from the traditional Kandahar region, Lima scrupulously maintains appearances. Given local prejudices, she must take music lessons clandestinely. In contrast, Setara is more flamboyant, at least by medieval standards, showing a bit of flair with her makeup and accessories. However, when she dares to improvise a few physical embellishments during one performance—what would be considered Grandma moves in the West—she finds herself the focus of Islamist death threats.

Star makes a strong case that Tolo’s talent show is an enormously significant development for the country. Watching it seems to be a unifying cultural experience, even if viewers still vote according to their ethnicity. However, by insisting on giving the four finalists equal attention, we spend far too much with the two male contestants, who frankly are not nearly as interesting as their female counterparts. Unlike, Lima and Setara, they are not risky anything by participating and seem content to entrust their Star campaigns to leaders of their respective communities. Probably the boldest, most intriguing characters though, are the producers themselves, whose behind-the-scenes work on the show could have easily sustained the entire film.

Star is an excellent choice for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. One hopes organizers will not ignore the clear violent misogyny of contemporary Islamists, which is probably the gravest threat to human rights in the world today. Unfortunately, this year’s festival is largely dominated by politically correct offerings, and has no programming relevant to the turbulent events unfolding in Iran, which is arguably the leading human rights story of the year so far.