Afghanistan Idol

American Idol remains the guiltiest of pleasures here in the United States. It's a pop culture phenomenon engineered to lift spirits, distract viewers from depressing headlines, and provide a platform for Simon Cowell’s withering put-downs.

The Afghanistan version of Idol is literally a life and death affair, with fans embracing the show as the ultimate manifestation of a culture war between modernism and strict Sharia law.

Afghan Star, a new documentary named after the country’s Idol-style showcase, reveals just how ingrained the show has quickly become in the country’s culture. But not everyone wants to embrace a show teeming with Western values.

Remaining Taliban forces are against music and television of any kind, and repeatedly try to shut the show down. Some Islamic clerics are of the same mind, warning that the show’s content runs against the pillars of a good Islamic society.

Many Afghan residents see it differently.

The simple act of voting for your favorite contestant via cell phone is a remarkable sign of progress for a country that, in the past 30 years, suffered a devastating invasion by Soviet troops and the barbaric rule of the Taliban.

Afghan Star has become a symbol of art over bloodshed, a chance for a struggling culture to embrace its creative side.

Naturally, none of this would be possible without the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of the Taliban. But the documentary doesn’t delve into war or politics. It’s a story of a people eager for freedom and the few powerful voices even more eager to squash that spirit.

That alone makes it a rarity on movie screens today. Why hasn’t Hollywood seen fit to explore this fascinating struggle either with a fictional film or a documentary like Afghan Star?

The movie opens with a little boy singing his heart out as if he were old enough to audition for the popular show.

“If there was no music, humans would be sad,” the little boy says.