In the United States, television mostly seems irrelevant these days. It no longer brings us together as it did in the 1950s and 1960s when there were just a few networks giving us common cultural experiences. Now the population is divided by hundreds of cable stations. TV mostly separates and pacifies us. As described in the documentary Afghan Star, the situation is far different in Afghanistan. Watching television is a pleasure recently restored after years of Taliban rule. Viewing is a political statement that defies the radical Islamic clerics who want to dictate morality. Performing on television is an act of courage.
Ironically, Afghan television is encouraging its viewers to come together and speak out by emulating one of the few American programs that has recently garnered viewers from all ages and political parties. Like its model American Idol, Afghan Star is a televised talent show that lets the viewers vote to decide who wins. In the documentary by the same name, we follow four contestants through one season of Afghan Star. For the two men, being on television is risky behavior that wins them fans who reject the Taliban past but are still cautious about offending conservative forces. The two women, on the other hand, have literally made themselves into targets for censure and possible assassination for appearing unveiled with men.
Viewers of the documentary see how thirty years of war has wrecked the country. As tense as the situation is, however, the message of the documentary seems upbeat. There are brave Afghans who want to enjoy music, such as the family identified as "Number One Fans" whose older daughter engineers a television antenna on the roof with foil and younger daughter plays Afghan Star with her dolls. There are the industrious street boys who recharge car batteries and cart them through the rubble strewn street to houses without reliable electricity. There are also legions of people spreading Afghan Star leaflets across the country to encourage voting for their favorite singers.
Sixteen people attended the film discussion at Thomas Ford and none left early after the viewing. Our conversation about the film and what we knew about the Afghan conflict lasted nearly half an hour. Other film groups should consider showing Afghan Star. More on the film is available at its own website.
Afghan Star. Zeitgeist Films, 2010. 88 minutes.