From 1996 to 2004, it was a crime to dance, listen to music, or watch TV in Afghanistan, but shortly after those restrictions were lifted, a local television network began producing Afghan Star, a singing competition in American Idol mode. While the show has been wildly popular—drawing more than 10 million viewers per episode—it’s also become a source of tension in a still-unstable nation. Some think cultural changes are coming to Afghanistan too fast, and others are certain it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban regains control and targets all the people who have made public spectacles of themselves. In Havana Marking’s documentary about the dramatic final episodes of one recent Afghan Star season, signs of skittishness abound. When one middle-aged man talks about his hopes that the next generation will be more modern, the people standing next to him look askance and say nothing. And when one female contestant gets swept up by emotion and removes her head-covering while dancing, she receives death threats.
Marking’s Afghan Star follows the show’s structure too closely, and because the performances tend to be repetitive and off-key, the documentary gets tedious at times. But it’s just as often moving to see young Afghanis testing the bounds of what their society will allow, as they sing popular regional songs about forbidden romance. And if nothing else, Afghan Star offers a reminder of how much has changed in Afghanistan from the late ’70s—when Kabul was a secular-oriented city with co-ed universities and a thriving nightclub scene—to the rise of the Taliban. Yet even during the country’s most repressive era, people would watch TV or listen to music in secret, and today, some are eager to turn back the clock. Afghan Star features a scene of a young girl using her smuggled Barbie dolls to act out moments from the show, and a later scene of her mother appearing at the series finale with her head uncovered. The success of the Afghan Star show can partly be chalked up to the country’s secret familiarity with Western popular culture, including an appreciation for foreign women who dance and show their hair. But it’s due even more to a format that allows viewers to call in and express their preferences, to have their voices be heard.