Afghanistan has had more than its share of troubles over the years, but perhaps there could be a way of uniting a country which has been split apart by conflicts from the Mujahadeen and the Taliban. In 1996, the latter banned all forms of dancing, music and television, leading such things to be enjoyed in secret on pain of death if they had been done publically, so when the nation began to creep towards a more liberal and tolerant society, new television stations were set up. One of those was Tolo TV, and a producer there, Daoud Sediqi, saw a gap in the market for fresh faces...
Therefore Afghan Star was born, an immensely popular entertainment extravaganza which essentially brought the talent show to Afghan television in the form of those Simon Cowell productions which had been franchised across the world with the likes of The X Factor and American Idol, among many others. In the West, Cowell was not seen as some pioneer of cultural boundary-pushing, quite the opposite in fact, and rehashing Opportunity Knocks for the 21st Century was not many people's idea of groundbreaking TV, but they were watched by huge numbers, and in a curious way represented a democratisation of the music industry.
Or that part of the music industry serviced by those who produced efforts for those who did not want to be challenged by the material they enjoyed hearing; call it safe, bland and conservative, but that's what sold to a lot of punters. Except that in Afghanistan, their version of it was the closest thing to actual democracy, including the political strain, that many had experienced for decades, and for a portion of the population - the young - it was the first chance they had to see what it was like. Time and again director Havana Marking interviews the Afghan public and they tell her they prefer this showbiz programme to the business of choosing who rules them.
Okay, listening to pleasant pop tunes is probably more enjoyable than the misery of the Afghan political situation, but they had a point, and you could see this show was lightening a lot of lives, offering something to take their minds off the daily grind, especially in the more war-torn areas of the nation. We follow four of the contestants, two men and two women, but it's the women who evidently most intrigued Marking for a culture which had been oppressing their gender for the past few years (we see clips of Afghanistan before the troubles hit and it's notably more relaxed). One of the ladies, Setara, is a progressive thinker, and that gets her into trouble when she has the temerity to dance on the show.
It will seem incredible to many viewers outside of the stricter Islamic communities that watching this girl do a little dance while singing should scandalise great swathes of the public there, and even win her death threats, but that is what happens. She philosophical, explaining that she had lived under a regime of fear her whole life so this is nothing different for her, but you worry for her nonetheless, and the sequence where she is forced to return home and meet the family who keep hearing rumours she has been killed is the most emotional one in the documentary. Indeed, it's easy to forget there was a contest being held here, but we do eventually find out who won, and the public are represented by the Khan family who we are gladdened to see have been empowered by their appreciation of what in the West we take for granted and even dismiss as something to pass the time in front of on a weekend night. Sediqi is defiant in the face of the threats his show receives, and this may be concerning, but it's uplifting too.