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.
He’s probably not old enough to remember that simple act was forbidden under the Taliban’s draconian rule. We’re told that in 1996, it became a crime to dance, listen to music, or watch TV.
Once U.S.-led forces crushed the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, music could be heard again in Afghanistan’s culture. But the transition isn’t a smooth one. Plenty of citizens believe singing isn’t acceptable in an Islamic society.
Wannabe contestants line up for Star auditions all the same, displaying far more dignity than some of Idol’s more outlandish hopefuls. To them, it isn’t just a talent show. It’s a chance to flex their country’s newly acquired freedom.
Their Idol lacks Cowell’s biting wit and slick production values, but viewers hardly seem to mind. They gather anywhere there’s a working television set to keep track of how their favorite singers are doing each week.
The film follows four Star hopefuls over the course of one television season -- two young men and two young women. The winner gets $5,000, but it’s clear the money alone isn't driving the contestants.
Cultural healing abounds on the show, as singers from different parts of the country set aside past grievances to sing -- and vote -- as one.
The documentary eschews narration, letting the contestants and images fill in the blanks. It’s startling to see a woman wearing a burqa snapping pictures of an Afghan Star contestant from her cell phone. Or watch a little girl playing with a Western-style doll but pulling her dress down to keep her plastic modesty intact.
That tension is everywhere, both in the contest and in the documentary. When one of the two female contestants dances casually across the stage during her performance, her countrymen watch agape.
We’re still an Islamic society, one viewer says, and that kind of loose behavior is unacceptable. Death threats against the contestant soon mount, and her chances of winning the contest seem doomed. She might not even live long enough to make it to the final round.
Like American Idol itself, Afghan Star feels padded at times, as if its story could be told even better if the editors stripped away a few unnecessary sequences.
And while the film has plenty to say about the country’s hunger for freedom and individual expression, it feels more like a duty to watch rather than a pleasure at times. That sentiment vanishes the moment the female contestant breaks out her dance moves.
Social change can take years, if not decades, leaving the Afghan people at the mercy of those eager to exploit any fears of cultural expression. Afghan Star the documentary, while certainly flawed, explores just how deep the chasm remains between old Islamic traditions and people who want not only peace but the ability to sing to their hearts’ content.