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Subversive 'Afghan idol' documentary highlights dubious democracy


Text by Mehdi Chebil

Latest update : 2009-12-01

The reality TV singing contest "Afghan Star", inspired by the popular "Pop Idol" format, has taken Afghanistan by storm. But a documentary about the show reveals the power of the resurgent Taliban, who forced the exile of the programme's host.

For a depressing account of Afghanistan’s worsening security situation, look no further than London-based director Havana Marking’s award-winning documentary Afghan Star, a candidate for the 2010 Oscars in the foreign films category.

The documentary’s gloomy mood is unwittingly compounded by the fact that the popular televised singing competition was being hailed as a sign of the awakening of democracy in Afghanistan.

Afghan Star follows four contestants - two men and two women - singing on a reality television show of the same name, vying for popular votes and the top prize of 5,000 dollars as well as a potentially lucrative career in entertainment.

The show’s host, Daoud Sediqi, is a celebrity in his own right. Throughout the documentary, he can be seen working an ecstatic crowd in a TV studio filled with loud music and colourful laser lights.

“As long as the government is alive, I’m alive. I’m not afraid of the Taliban. I want to say the Taliban are finished,” a confident Sediqi declared while at the peak of his glory.

From celebrity host to fleeing refugee

As the lights are turned on in the Paris theatre where the projection was organised, a very different man appears. Only two years have passed, but Sediqi has now become a political refugee in the United States, fleeing Taliban threats on his life.

“Back in 2004, the situation was a little bit good, we had more power. We thought we were going forward,” a disillusioned Sediqi told FRANCE 24.

Still, he insists that the mass media conveys an exclusively negative image of his country and hopes that the Afghan Star documentary will somehow redress the balance.

The first series of the Afghan Star TV show was launched in 2005, four years after the toppling of the repressive Taliban regime that had forbidden all public displays of music. By 2007, it had turned into a nationwide sensation, regularly attracting 11 million viewers – almost one third of Afghanistan’s population.

Elusive threats

The Afghan Star documentary will not make history in terms of cinematography. It doesn’t talk enough about the featured contestants, and repeatedly fills narrative gaps with footage of beautiful Afghan landscape, which does little to maintain suspense.

But, without actually showing footage of the weapon-toting bearded figures society has grown accustomed to, the documentary evokes the Damocles sword of the Taliban that hangs over Afghan society. Its major achievement is to portray the elusive Taliban threat as a pervasive mindset targeted first and foremost at the female contestants.

Setara's dancing scandal

The Afghan Star TV show caused a public outcry when a woman named Setara from Herat, a major city in western Afghanistan, danced energetically on stage, causing her headscarf to slip twice. She was no Beyoncé, but it proved enough to trigger condemnation from the powerful local warlord, Ismail Khan, as well as a flurry of chilling death threats.

“She brought shame to the Herati people. She deserved to be killed,” said an anonymous man in an impromptu street interview with Havana Marking in Herat.

Freedom for female competitors?

Younger Afghans are not immune to this mindset about women. The reaction of several male contestants contradicts the idea that the wired young generation is for a more liberal society.

“Her life is in danger. In her last song, she showed her hair and danced a lot. She will pay a big price,” said a twenty-something competitor, after watching Setara’s performance from backstage.

Another female competitor stuck to a more traditional attitude. The Pashtun candidate from Kandahar, the former powerbase of the Taliban, thought that support from her ethnic group, which makes up about 60% of Afghanistan's population, would get her through to the final.

“You should know the Taliban are now sending text messages to vote for me,” she told Marking, minutes before being eliminated.

SIM card democracy

Afghanistan's own "pop idol" show

Besides giving something of a voice to women, the Afghan Star TV show has been widely praised for helping to nurture democracy that transcends ethnic boundaries. The winner of the 2007 season featured in the documentary was Rafi Naabzada, an ethnic Tadjik from the northern city of Mazar e-Sharif.

But it's not just about ethnicity. Daoud Sediqi is adamant that the TV show has promoted another, more modern kind of democracy seen in Western countries: voting from a mobile phone. The show allows its audience one vote per SIM card.

“With this kind of TV show, we can help people to open up their mind. Afghan Star is the best example in Afghanistan,” Sediqi told FRANCE 24.

But the documentary undermines the democratic credentials of the reality TV show by recalling the story of a rich Kandahar man who bought 10,000 SIM cards to support his favourite candidate. Another fan thought of selling his car to buy more SIM cards.

“Is it fair?” the interviewer asked an Afghan Star supporter.

“Yes! It’s love!” immediately replied the new democrat, in a response that even Afghan President Hamid Karzai would probably not disagree with.

Date created : 2009-11-27