Provincetown Film Festival Review: Afghan Star

At the 2006 Provincetown Film Festival, I saw small town gay bar, a very good documentary (produced by Kevin “Silent Bob” Smith, of all people) which gave me some insight into the source of a particularly unpleasant strain of religious extremism.  At one point in the film, there’s an interview with human hemorrhoid Fred Phelps, the guy with the offensive website who leads his followers to, among other things, spew hatred outside productions of The Laramie Project, a play which depicts his more notorious tactic of spewing hatred at the funerals of people he considers sinners, i.e., pretty much everyone in the world.  In an attempt to justify his actions, Phelps explains his belief that, far from loving mankind, God pretty much hates our guts and wants us to be miserable.

The same kind of self-loathing philosophy apparently guides the Taliban, whose primary goal in Afghanistan seems to be the annihilation of joy.  During the group’s regime, music, television, cinema, zoos and even kite flying were all banned (along with the 21st century in general and, of course, basic rights for women).  After the U.S. invasion of 2001, things improved somewhat, thus setting the stage for Afghan Star, the embattled nation’s answer to American Idol, as well as an eponymous documentary by Havana Marking about the program’s scrappy, heroic producers and performers, who (to various degrees) literally risk their lives for pop culture.

Here in the U.S., where reality t.v. is frequently vilified as a symptom (or cause) of the downfall of Western civilization, it may be hard to imagine a society where cheesy pop songs and game show theatrics can actually be inspiring catalysts for change, but (as summarized in the catalogue listing for the documentary, which played last week at the 11th Annual Provincetown Film Festival), calling in votes for favorite singers on the wildly popular Afghani talent competition was the first time many of the nation’s citizens actively practiced democracy, and the camaraderie of the show’s multi-ethnic contestants provides a hopeful vision of diversity and national unity in a fiercely tribal region. 

As with any good reality program, we get to know the personalities and back stories of the various Afghan Star competitors, rooting for them all to succeed while knowing there can only be one ultimate victor.  Yet the stakes in Marking’s film are a lot higher than whether or not, say, Glambert will defeat Kris Allen.  For one thing, the five thousand dollar grand prize, paltry by American standards, is ten times the average Afghani annual salary.  

But the real suspense in the film is generated by Setara, one of only three women (out of thousands of hopefuls) to audition for the show.  More Julie Kavner than Madonna, the feisty 21-year-old nevertheless becomes a lightning rod of controversy thanks to her modern, Western behavior and a proclivity for “provocative” dancing (think Hilary Clinton busting a move on Ellen), which Muslim goombahs in the Afghani equivalent of South Jersey label as whorish, while the nation’s more militant extremists call for her death. 

After years of fear and oppression, however, Setara and her fellow contestants — along with Afghan Star’s producers and viewers — have simply had enough of the Phelps/Taliban-style devotion to life as living hell, and it’s thrilling to see them fight back with little more than defiant humanity.   (Andrew Osborne)

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