"In Afghanistan, if you don't have a war, you have an earthquake."
[caption id="attachment_12438" align="aligncenter" width="540" caption="Lema Sahar performs in Afghan Star"] [/caption]
So says Habib Amiri, the surprisingly baby-faced producer of the hit show "Afghan Star." Modeled on "American Idol," this program has a fascinating presence in a country that has been laid to waste by constant over the last thirty years.
In this new documentary, filmmaker Havana Marking follows four competitors through familiar but subtly different scenes: Insulting but reserved judges, strangely sedate performances (no dancing for this Islamic republic), tearful farewells between male performers who weep together unreservedly, while women refuse to cry.
With Lema, Rafi, Setara and Hameed, Afghan Star travels through an experience that is "the first time many young people have encountered democracy." This from the station producer as he drives through Kabul telling stories of the secret TV repair shop he ran during the Taliban years. And he's right. People are voting (for the first time), using their cell phones to nominate their favorite contestants.
And that's the the real rub of Afghan Star . In a country where politics kills, democracy surfaces in a television show, whose finale is watched by 11 million people, or one-third of the nation's populace. Children hurry across the steppes to get into a school with their village's only television set, terrified that they might be late for Afghan Star . Asked if he'll use his fame to become a politician, Rafi declares, "I do have an interest in politics, but I am afraid that politics can get you killed. I would like music to be my politics."
And in a strange way, it is. With contestants from all of Afghanistan's many ethnic groups joining in a nationally syndicated lovefest, the show becomes a message about unity in a country sadly lacking for it. While I do wish that Marking would turn a slightly more critical eye on the corporate side of things, it's a fascinating and completely foreign dynamic for what, in the United States, is just another trashy "reality" show.
Celebrate the second-ever presidential elections in Afghanistan by going to see Afghan Star at the Landmark Varsity . This week only.
[Editor's note: I've said it before , and I'll say it again: Sigh . The news from Afghanistan today is not good. The NYT Week in Review says so too .]