Afghan Star sets out with a delectably postmodern agenda: Closely following four contestants in the eponymous television program, Afghanistan’s burqa-busting answer to American Idol, the documentary compassionately argues that one region’s pop detritus is another’s ideological maturation. After NATO chased the Taliban out of their war torn, totalitarian playground at the urging of the U.S. in 2001, remaining inhabitants were faced with the perplexing novelty of freedom of speech—at least as far as the Qur’an would allow. Broadcasting companies were quickly organized but overcome with the awkwardness of rebuilding media outlets after nearly two generations of stifled silence. The solution was, naturally, to seek a preexisting entertainment model and adapt it for Islamic viewers, and since a flood of American imports had already captivated the celebrity-starved nation, Afghan Star was developed—not only as a source of euphonic escapism, but as a sly way of uniting Afghanistan’s collection of perpetually embattled provinces (contestants on the show are drawn from as many diverse corners of the country as possible).
Director Havana Marking’s social observations resonate most effectively when she concentrates on the titular TV show itself, and its widespread cult, much of which diagonally illuminates the political context of the populous. After years of enduring unrewarded labor and ubiquitous terrorism, even the most indigent and rural of citizens are obsessed with which member of the ragtag pool of singers on Afghan Star will go home next, especially since the population’s own text message votes make the choices. And the performers themselves—despite appearing astoundingly aged in spite of their twentysomethingness—seem to represent the resurrection of what has been for the last 30 years a dormant Afghan culture: A conservative but nonetheless jubilant and even campy musical celebration of Middle-Eastern consciousness (connecting these dots for us, the film shows clips of hilariously kinetic mid-‘80s music videos from Afghan TV, most of which sound and look like outtakes from “Addicted to Love”-era Robert Palmer).
There are also, however, reminders that Afghanistan doesn’t need the Taliban to subjugate women—they can manage it well enough on their own. Setara, a youthful female contestant, doffs her head-wrap during a passionate number and dances with her hair freely jostling along to her hip rotations. The response from even the girl’s fans is spontaneously brutal, with droves of Afghan Star viewers willing to uphold their Muslim taboos with the death penalty. This subplot is essential to understanding the warped, transitional state of Afghan psychology, but it causes the film to lose focus and ethical perspective: Stalling the pop competition’s optimistic trajectory, the directors occasionally even sink so low as to use the uncertainty of the alleged heretic’s fate for visceral tension.
This misfired episode isn’t quite enough to sour the entire documentary, but it does effectively curdle one of its most admirable points: That the voting system of Afghan Star could be viewed as nascent democracy. As the final winner is announced and the end credits roll our thoughts turn not to Thomas Paine or Montesquieu, but the sadistically topsy-turvy republic of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Regardless of the governing method, Islamic nations will forever function within the autocratic grip of intransigent fatwas.