Afghan Idol: Can a Talent Competition Save a Nation?

Etched on a wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s special exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” is a slogan that first appeared at the museum back in Kabul: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”

I thought of this as I prepared to interview London-based documentarian Havana Marking, director of the new film Afghan Star, an inspiring look into a talent competition that is uniting this war-torn country through the power of music.

What drew you to this story?

We just hear the warlords, the mullahs, the Taliban—the old guard. We’re not hearing the voice of the young people. I wanted something that showed that in some way. But also you want something that is logistically possible and something that is going to be worth essentially risking your life to film. When someone told me about Afghan Star, I thought instantly, that’s the way in.

How does pop music serve to unite this country?

When the Taliban fell, the first thing people did was put on music cassettes. As people got more confident they played it louder and louder. Music is sort of an expression of freedom now because it was banned at that time. But the partaking and the creating of music is something that’s even more radical. The listening, discussing and debating and all that kind of stuff gives people something to talk about that isn’t war or tragedy.

Afghanistan has a very strong cultural history and a very strong music; it’s not just music but the lyrics. Afghanistan is the home of Sufism and a lot of the lyrics that these kids are singing date back to Sufi poetry of the 17th century and beyond. Afghans themselves are really proud that there’s Afghan music again. It’s a real invigoration of the culture.

What does this show demonstrate about the power of democracy?

There are democratic ideals in the show in that everyone competing in the show is equal; there is voting. Afghan Star actually seems to be bringing together warring factions within the country. They’re voting across ethnic lines, but all those singers are given a fairly equal chance.

How did get religious leaders to speak to you on camera?

I was there for four months. We just kept requesting interviews with the Islamic Council and in the end, they were like okay. I realize now that you don’t always get an interview with them. Also, the footage of the warlords was footage taken from a local news station.

What were their objections to Afghan Star?

The Islamic Council weren’t so angry about the singing. It was the dancing that got them really upset. Afghanistan is finding itself as a nation. It’s working out how you can be a modern Afghan and be religious. Eight years ago putting on a cassette was considered radical. Now making music is considered radical. We’ve got another generation to go before dancing will be accepted.

Even one of the female contestants objected when the other female contestant chose to dance.

The men don’t dance either. So Setara’s dance is radical on all fronts. She becomes a direct result of political manipulation. So one of the leaders goes on TV and says, “She’s insulted our martyrs. If the Mujahideen were in power, this would never be allowed to happen.” This deliberately stirs up the young men of Herat, where she’s from. It’s only after that broadcast that those guys start saying how awful Setara is.

A lot Afghans, like Setara’s father, want the best for their daughters but they’re not given a chance to speak. It’s a very difficult balance for those men; that they want the best for their daughters and yet they know that if their daughter goes on stage, her life is going to be in danger. Do you let her or do you make her stay at home?

How would you respond to those who state that these clerics’ objections to Afghan Star prove that Islam is a repressive religion?

That’s ridiculous. Rafi, one of the finalists, goes to the mosque to be blessed. These clerics are portrayed now as mainstream Islam in the media because they have the loudest voices. It sells papers when the crazy man says something. But Afghanistan is the home of Sufi dancing. It’s not unimaginable to think that won’t come back.

What reaction to this film have you received from Muslims, especially those who consider themselves to be moderate?

We had an amazing screening in London at a high school that’s in a largely Muslim area. Incredible debates happened: shouting, cheering, and booing. But the kids, who are second and third generation Muslims, want to do a screening where the local Mullahs and their parents come so they can start a debate themselves.

What do you hope to accomplish through this film?

I want to humanize the Afghans. Journalism in Afghanistan is very difficult because you’re only allowed to embed with the troops, which means they completely control what you can cover. So the only Afghans you ever see on the news are the enemy. You never get to to really see and hear what real Afghans are saying.

Currently in theatrical release via Zeitgeist Films, Afghan Star—the Documentary will make its US television debut on HBO in early 2010.