Heeb sat down with the director Havana Marking to talk about her new documentary Afghan Star. The movie follows four very different contestants of the TV show of the same name, an American Idol-style talent contest whose third season finale was viewed by one-third of Afghanistan. The show has been truly groundbreaking. It has energized the youth of the country, helped bring music back to the culture after being banned under the Taliban, allowed viewers to participate in the democratic process of voting for their favorites, and celebrated contestants across tribal and ethnic lines.
It has also been highly controversial. A female contestant received death threats for singing without a headscarf and dancing on stage. The show landed squarely in the debate between those who want Afghanistan to follow fundamentalist Islamic law and those looking to create a more modern Muslim society.
How would you explain to people the significance of the show in Afghanistan, which goes far beyond just pop culture?
It gives people a vision of what Afghanistan could be, that there is an alternative way to do things. Tribes can be equal. Women can have a chance. Culture can come back, and things can be fun. On one level, it’s great entertainment. On another level, it’s reinvigorating Afghan culture. It’s creating a music industry that’s been crushed. It’s installing pride.
Finding role models, the voting systems, the campaigning for candidates, all of those things are showing people that there’s another way. And clearly it’s very popular, or a third of the country wouldn’t be watching.
How has it been influencing the culture in a larger way?
You can possibly say that it single-handedly is going to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Democracy is only going to work if there’s education, an economy, stability and freedom. But little things, like Setara being on stage without a headscarf. And here’s Hameed, a guy who’s cultured, brilliant, talented, charming, good looking. The Hazara people could hold their heads a little bit more high. They were massacred under the Taliban. They were the slaves of Afghanistan, in a way. It gives people a different confidence that’s very important.
The other thing it’s really done is galvanize the youth. It’s brought a very different way of looking at things since the civil war, when everything was divided by tribes.
How early did you zone in on those four contestants to follow?
It was a combination of good choice and incredible luck that those characters were all strong and brought something different to the table. There wasn’t much choice with the women, but they are diametrically opposed to each other in the spectrum of female empowerment. Rafi’s got kind of a star quality. He brought the idea that you can sing, be young, good looking and fun and still be a good Muslim. The idea which we seem to have in the West of Islam being this one fundamentalist thing is absolutely wrong.
Did a woman have a legitimate chance of winning?
Not really. Lima did absolutely amazing to get to the top three.
Did Rafi being the more traditionally good-looking guy versus the more ethnic Hameed affect his winning?
There was a season where a Hazara guy did win, so it’s not strictly on ethnic grounds. But definitely all of those things have a role to play. One thing about Afghanistan that historically tears it apart, and why democracy is a big challenge there, is there is no one majority. So everyone is always making alliances, making deals. It’s very difficult.
Rafi is a Tajik. His ethnic group is not nearly in the majority. For him to win, he had to appeal on a broad basis. Politically, it’s a very interesting way to debate Afghan society. There’s always going to be a percentage of people who vote ethnically. But there seem to be more and more people who are voting out of talent and who they like.
Does he have an album out?
It’s all been a bit quiet from Rafi. The infrastructure there is slow. But apparently one of the issues is that we’re running up to the elections, and every politician wants Rafi or Hameed to endorse them. I think that’s part of why Rafi’s been less focused on the music. I imagined that his face would be on every shampoo bottle or something, but he’s probably just spending his winnings, actually. His family was poor.
So this is actually running into the political, democratic process in Afghanistan now?
That galvanizing thing of everybody campaigning and going out on those road trips, that evolved. It hadn’t been done before this show, and that’s a really interesting grassroots thing that people realized worked. But Afghanistan is in a very difficult situation. It’s the fifth-poorest country in the world, it’s got 50 percent unemployment. It’s very easy to be a peaceful, democratic nation when everyone’s got money.
When you’re working on a documentary, you don’t always know where the story is going to go. What was the big moment for you as a filmmaker?
Setara dancing with the headscarf lowered was totally electric. It completely took me by surprise. It was such an image of liberation and freedom that I got quite emotional at the time. Thank God my cameraman was on board to make decisions, because I lost the ability to direct at that moment because it was so extraordinary.
Does the show’s success bode well for the youth of the country?
I think it probably does. But you can see how those young guys in Herat are wound up politically by that guy who goes on air and says, ‘Lima has insulted your people.’ There’s still room for political manipulation.
Afghanistan is absolutely at this crossroads where it’s trying to work out how you can be modern and yet a Muslim. It’s such an epic history. You’ve got four or five generations who have grown up under completely different regimes which have influenced every single mindset. All of these people are trying to come together as a country and work this out. Everyone is pushing and pulling. Afghan Star just became one of those things where people were defining themselves and pushing a bit.
When they created the show, do you think the producers knew the level of importance it would take on?
They started it because they had a radio show, and there was no Afghan music to play that wasn’t 30 years old. They were like, how are we going to not only play Afghan music, but create it? They never even questioned the idea that every tribe should be treated equally, or that women should get an equal chance. And then it became this thing that’s engaged these young people with an exciting vision of what life could be like if everyone had a chance.
In the film, the show’s host says to your camera, ‘The Taliban is not important.’ He doesn’t live in Afghanistan anymore.
No. He was the only one on camera who would openly say anything against them. Even now, eight years after we supposedly won, no one is sure that the Taliban won’t come back. While I was there, security was just disintegrating and they were getting closer to Kabul. He was openly defiant. He is the most famous man in Afghanistan. He’s actually Pashtun, so he’s ethnically from their tribal base. But he’s absolutely anti- everything the Taliban stood for. So he was a target for a number of reasons. It’s a really sad indication that security has just disintegrated.
The news about your Sundance awards traveled very quickly back to Afghanistan. It seems almost inconceivable that Afghanistan could be following the Sundance Film Festival.
They were so proud. There’s a guy who won a bronze metal in the Olympics, and he’s a national hero. They’re so excited that Afghans can have a role in the world. That people are seeing Afghan Star around the world, they’re really happy about it.
And yet the film can’t be shown in Afghanistan.
The film shows such a different image of Afghanistan than we mostly see in the West, which is usually focused on the war.
Afghanistan is a country of absolute contradictions. Everybody’s trying to find out who they are. There was a war, and there are frontline stories dealing with the violence. Those are the loudest voices and are important stories. But it meant that for eight years, no one’s really seen the actual silent majority, suburban Afghanistan. Hopefully with our film, you get to see that side.