(director: Havana Marking; cinematographer: Phil Stebbing; editor: Ash Jenkins; music: Simon Russell; cast: Setara Hussainzada, Rafi Nabaazda, Hameed Sahkizada, Lema Sehar, Daoud Sediqi; Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Havana Marking; Zeitgeist Films; 2009-UK/Afghanistan-English, Dari and Pashtun with English subtitles)

“It’s an upbeat film, though hardly a convincing one, that shows there’s more to the popular TV show than entertainment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The world has gone crazy over worshiping pop idols, as witness the recent Slumdog Millionaire and the American television show “American Idol.” This pro-democracy documentary is directed by Havana Marking (“The Crippendales”). It shows a backward and ruined Islamic country at war since 1979 and having music banned by the Mujahideen when the Taliban took control in 1996, finally in 2004 experiencing democracy and the return of music and with that some slim hope for the future.

This doc lacks depth and crowd pleasing appeal and pales greatly when compared to other recent docs using the same template (Who will win?). What this one has in its favor is that it’s filmed in war-torn Afghanistan, a current hot spot in the world that is a country people know very little about, and thereby one gets a sense of how backward things still are there.

Former shop owner and in secret a TV repairman during the Taliban regime, Daud Sediqi, produces and is a host on “Afghan Star,” a Tolo TV production that is a contest for the most popular singer in the country–with votes by phone, through the use of sim cards. From 200 contestants the field is narrowed to the three finalists, a conservative woman Pashtun from Kandahar (Lema Sehar), a handsome smoothy 19-year-old Tajik tribesman from Mazar-i-Sharif (Rafi Nabaazda) and a thirtsomething Hazara tribesman from Kabul who sings in a classically-trained voice of brotherhood (Hameed Sahkizada).

The producers consider it a moral victory that three women entered the contest, though one Bollywood made up woman (Setara Hussainzada), a fourth finalist from Herat, briefly took off her scarf head covering and did a dance onstage which greatly upset most in the country–to the extent she received death threats.

The show’s 2008 season finale had 11 million viewers (a third of the country’s population), as the grand prize of $5,000 was fought for with campaigns with posters across the country. The friendly rivalry perhaps between members of different tribes gives a sliver of hope among many Afghans for a national unity that will transcend the traditional tribal conflicts.

It’s an upbeat film, though hardly a convincing one, that shows there’s more to the popular TV show than entertainment. In any case, it should give the Westerner pause as to why there’s still a long and arduous road ahead for Afghanistan to come out of its repressive religious and tribal ways.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”