Televised singing contests have one common denominator: Popularity trumps talent. But as British director Havana Marking uncovered while following four young hopefuls competing to be their country’s top singer in her first feature documentary, Afghan Star, named after the TV series, that’s where the similarity ends. For an American Idol winner, the title can bring fame, recording opportunities and the requisite Rolling Stone cover, where you can publicly come out of the closet. For an Afghan Star winner, the title also includes a recording contract, as well as a $5,000 prize, which is five times the average national income. And the only situation these contestants are begging to advance from is poverty and oppression.

In the West, you might hear a Kelly Clarkson ballad in a wedding hall. In Afghan Star’s case, the reality show is taped in a wedding hall in Kabul, manned by gun-toting security guards. Broadcast by Afghanistan’s Tolo TV since 2005, Marking and her two-man crew caught the behind-the-scenes action of the 2007 edition, which attracted 2,000 contestants, including three women (the show also has a lone female judge), considered a sizable number.

During a phone conversation while promoting the documentary in New York, Markings says of her pursuit, “The country came first. I’d wanted to go for years. It’s still obviously dangerous and you don’t want to go unless you have something really special. You really have to make sure that what you’re doing is really important and is worth it but also logistically possible. I’m not a frontline journalist. I wasn’t interested in wearing flak jackets and filming soldiers. I wanted only to film the real people, see what people who are trying to have an everyday, normal life were doing.”

After two invasions and six years of Taliban rule (1996 to 2001) that banned live music and dancing, Marking found it relatively easy as a female shooting a documentary. “There is freedom of press, and as a foreigner you’re not regulated as such,” Marking says. “There is no infrastructure, no bureaucracy. No one is checking. They have far more important things to deal with. In terms of permits, it’s much easier filming there than it is in Europe or America. In terms of logistics, the actual practicalities were much harder to deal with. But being there, we were given free rein.”

Marking interjects ’80s footage of a new wave–sounding band playing Kabul University, evidence of the country’s better, more tolerant days. Now, reality TV is spreading in the Middle East and Africa, which are influenced more by Bollywood and India than American and European programming; Lebanon has the Simon Fuller–produced Super Star, which gathers contestants from across the Arab world, and there are versions in countries from Pakistan to Ethiopia. The series is seen as a reinvigoration of Afghani pop culture as much as it is another competition. “Our goal is to take the people’s hands from weapons to music,” host Daoud Sadiqi passionately says in the film’s beginning.

But, as Marking points out, the TV talent show is nothing new. “We had our TVs in the 1950s. And centuries ago, the king would say, ‘Find me the best musicians,’ and they would scout the country, and the king would decide who his favorite musician was. What’s changed is the technology and the voting, which make the TV audience a part of the show in a way that’s never been possible before. That’s why the format works all over the world. Cell phones have radically transformed the landscape.”

More importantly, Afghan Star has been credited as a unifying force among the country’s different ethnic groups, including Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara. The contestants perform a mix of traditional, folk and ’70s songs popularized by singers like Ahmad Zahir, considered the King of Afghan music, most of which is steeped in Sufi poetry. “Who am I?/ Am I a rebel or crazy man?/I’m the scar of love/A story of loneliness/I’m not accepted by the Sufi mystics/I’m not accepted by the wine bearers,” sings one of the contestants, Rafi, in a pool hall surrounded by admirers.

“It’s not just the music that’s being reinvigorated,” Marking says, “it’s the lyrics. And that’s a very exciting thing for people to see being revived and not going out.”

Watching the show’s fans and the very old-fashioned, DIY-way they campaign for their candidates, you’ll remember what running for office in high school was like. They come from miles just to hand out fliers and roll through town while preaching into megaphones. One fan even sells his wheels to raise money. Marking also wisely includes interviews with two sisters gushing over Rafi — who, with his nonthreatening good looks, is the obvious favorite — just as teens in America would LOL over the Jonas Brothers.

This is a far cry from Marking’s first documentary short, 2007’s The Crippendales, which told the story of a group of British war veterans, including a victim of an IRA bomb blast, who want to do the full monty and try stripping for a living. In Afghan Star, the two men and women Marking filmed for three months are crippled by different elements: Rafi, 19, lives in a house with no electricity; Hameed, 20, is Hazara, one of Afghanistan’s most historically oppressed tribes; and Lima, 25, is from ultrareligious Kandahar. With henna-stained hands, she speaks of having to hide her music sheets and computer from the Taliban. In fact, Kabul runs on a few hours of electricity a day, and only 50 percent of households own a TV, which makes watching the tube in cafés and markets a communal experience completely foreign to us Westerners.

The film’s controversy, however, centers on Setara, 22, who, after being voted off, performs her final song while dancing with her head uncovered. This simple yet most un-Islamic act of defiance has clerics condemning her on TV, and locals in her hometown casually calling for her head. Amid false reports of her death, Setara returns to her family, even more defiantly convinced that people will eventually be coming around.

And indeed, they are. Afghan Star’s last season drew 15 female contestants. But, Marking insists, that is as much a personal choice as it is a sign of progress. “If women get more and more confident at that rate, that really shows a lot. But it has to come from inside. The women themselves have to feel safe. There’s still a big risk, but people are beginning to think that it’s worth that risk. The fact is, Lima and Setara both survived. It sounds ridiculous, but eight years ago they would’ve been stoned to death. It’s almost impossible for us to comprehend that kind of change. The progress itself is happening because of the show. My film isn’t gonna add to that debate. The debate is happening.”

Afghan Star opens this week in Los Angeles and New York.

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