Afghan Star (2008)

Democracy has never sounded so good…

For most Westerners, the collective image of the Middle East, fuelled by decades of news broadcasts and front-page headlines, is a war-torn land of dusty ruins. But, for the ordinary people who live in the region, their lives are full of colour and passion despite the troubles that surround them. Film-maker Havana Marking’s enthralling documentary not only highlights Middle Eastern culture, but also those people who are determined to live life to the full despite the difficulties they face on a daily basis.

Having suffered for three decades under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is a country revelling in relative independence. Television was banned for five years and so the medium is once again in its infancy, and forward thinking production companies like Tolo are embracing the opportunity to use it for change. They have created Afghan Star, a Pop Idol-style talent show in which Afghans compete to win the top prize of $5,000 – three times the average annual wage. Viewers vote for their favourites by mobile phone, and the fact that this is many Afghans’ first experience of democracy underscores its genuine importance. As the doc follows the last five contestants – including two women – on their journey to the final, tensions between traditional morality and modern pop culture begin to mount.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see such a familiar talent show format – complete with sharp-tongued judges and starry-eyed wannabees – in such a vastly different setting. This is a country where women still wear Burqas, where the threat of violence hangs in the air and the Taliban still casts a shadow of everyday life. But Marking’s film looks forward rather than back, focusing on those who are trying to change their country for the better. ‘We want to move people from the gun to the music’ says one of Afghan Star’s producers, summing up the far-reaching ambitions behind the programmes. In the West, these talent shows are a vehicle for fame and fortune, whereas in Afghanistan they represent a new democracy and freedom for all.

But these new ideas don’t always come easily. When one of the female contestants dares to dance and uncover her hair on stage, there is absolute uproar and death threats are issued against her and her family. Indeed, by the end of the film we are told that the religious Ullema Council has persuaded the government to ban dancing on television, and they are not the only group who believe Western morals will do more damage than even the Taliban. So, it seems, that change will not come easily in Afghanistan but that certainly won’t stop a new generation from trying to move the country in a different direction. Afghan Star is a timely, upbeat celebration of their efforts.

4 stars

Havana Marking
Roast Beef Productions
Running Time
1hr 27
Opening Date
March 27
th, at London’s ICA (