A documentary every bit as exciting and heartfelt as reality TV hits American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent introduces new stars and their amazing stories, and also pulls back the curtain on a much maligned country, Afghanistan, in director Havana Marking’s audience-winning Afghan Star. Winner of World Cinema Documentary Audience and Directing awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Afghan Star will generate strong word of mouth and critical praise, guaranteeing it moderate documentary business similar to the 2004 Al Jazeera documentary Control Room. But the chance for crossover business is strong with sufficient marketing that emphasizes its similarities to American Idol and Slumdog Millionaire. Afghan Star will perform well in markets with large Muslim populations but strong promotion will deliver larger, more diverse audiences.
Following the competition between four young finalists (two men and two women) as they vie to become the top performer on Tolo TV’s Afghan Star, Marking’s feature debut tracks the contestants from regional auditions to the finals in Kabul. Marking does a good job capturing the vast scope of their stories and what the popular show says about present-day Afghanistan.
Two thousand contestants compete in the early auditions but only three are women. A diverse grouping, the contestants represent all ethnic communities, all ages and varying regions of the country, not just Kabul. One third of Afghanistan watches the show and they vote via text messages on their mobile phones to award $5,000 to the winner.
Hammeed, 20, sings traditional songs and quickly gains loyal fan support. Lima, a 25 year old woman from Kandahar, dresses conservatively and tries to please the TV audience and the Taliban leaders who control her home province. Rafi is a handsome singer who dresses like a member of the ’60s Rat Pack and a fan favorite with young girls. The most compelling contestant is Setara Hussainzada, a brash 22 year old woman from Herat City who wears more modern clothes and has the courage to dance onstage, a practice frowned upon by conservative leaders.
“Do you think Afghanistan is ready to accept an open mind?” one reporter asks Setara. Her suspenseful outcome on Afghan Star will provide the answer.
Afghan Star is as entertaining as any talent competition but also has a strong socio-political story, providing a revealing look at Afghanistan as its rebuilds after years of war, Taliban rule and struggles with democracy.
The film’s Afghan setting will attract specialty moviegoers interested in foreign affairs and world politics due to the hot topic nature of Afghanistan.
Zeitgeist Films, which plans to release Afghan Star in June 2009, will aim to attract wider audiences interested in American Idol -like stories and looking to discover new talent from overseas, much how England’s Sarah Boyle from Britain’s Got Talent has attracted many American fans.
Havana Marking, who directed the short film The Crippendales, about disabled strippers, before making her feature filmmaking debut, with Afghan Star, captures the changes going on in Afghanistan in a direct and easy to understand manner. Her greatest storytelling strength lies in her fair, compassionate treatment of the contestants, as well as Daoud Seqiqi, the affable presenter and the director of the titular television show. Marking makes their stories every bit as interesting as the complex politics of Afghanistan, and as a result Afghan Star may become one of the summer’s breakout specialty releases.
Archival footage of Kabul University students performing at a talent show reveals just how tolerant and modern Afghanistan was in the ’80s. These scenes show Afghan Star as a mechanism for hope, a chance to return Afghanistan to its “glory” days of freedom.
Granted, the film lacks technical pizzazz, although cameraman Phil Stebbing captures Kabul and the surrounding country in all its decrepit state. Outside the doors of the Kabul Wedding Hall, the modest auditorium that hosts Afghan Star, the country is in dire condition.
Editor Ash Jenkins keeps the interviews lively and interesting and builds the suspense to the show’s climactic finale. One point of contention: we never see a contestant’s performance in its entirety.
With Afghan Star, Marking offers plenty of political insights but wisely emphasizes the human stories.
It's also worth noting that Time Magazine sent reporters during the Afghan Star finals to cover the show. They see that the story of Afghan Star is an audience pleaser.
Cast: Hammeed Sakhizada, Lima Sahar, Rafi Naabzack Mazur-e-Sharif and Setara Hussainzada
Director/Producer: Havana Marking
Running time: 88 min
Release date: Unset June 2009