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Afghan Star (currently screening at Zeitgeist) is a documentary about a show of the same name that for several years has been the most popular program in Afghanistan. It’s just like American Idol (only their Ryan Seacrest is better). When the program first aired early this decade, it grabbed the war-weary nation’s attention. It stirred controversy when a young woman danced while singing. A high council of Islamic advisors warned the government that the show was offensive to Islam, and Islamic political figures declared the incident an insult to the martyrs who had died repelling foreign invasions. And yet, in Kabul – which is cosmopolitan compared to the bleak and rugged landscape of the rest of the agrarian nation – there were many citizens who for years hid televisions from the Taliban and preserved such meager pleasures at high personal risk.

 

One of the most amusing but understated moments in the film is footage of an Afghan female pop singer performing on stage in 1980. She’s not wearing a headscarf much less a burqua. In fact, she could almost be mistaken for a taller, darker-skinned Sheena Easton from the same era. And so, what happened to memory of this fairly recent acceptance of popular music?

 

After the Soviet invasion in 1979, years of civil war and feuding warlords, and eventually Taliban rule, this scene seems to be from an ancient past. Return to a nation not run in accordance with fundamentalist Islamic (Sharia) law seems beyond the realm of possibility. With 60 percent of the population below the age of 21, most Afghan citizens don’t know what life was like before war. Most people interviewed in the film hope that music can be part of the new Afghanistan. But they speak and tread cautiously because even though the Taliban is no longer in power in Kabul, it is a force in rural areas. And other fundamentalist Islamic leaders believe in maintaining a theocratic nation.

 

The United States has had troops in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban and Islamic extremists, for 8 years. Almost nothing is mentioned about that in the film. Instead, it’s a fascinating look at daily life in a country recovering from war and liberalizing its social mores. As Afghan Star recruits talent in the far corners of the nation, filmmakers encounter the various ethnic groups that share a nationality (and which affects voting for favorite singers). Life in Kabul is an amazing mix of poverty, destruction, repression and modernity. When one of the contestants visits a mosque, a woman in a burqua takes his photo – from afar – with a cell phone.

 

The winner will not go on to a life of riches and stardom. The prize is $5,000. But one third of the nation tuned into the final to hear the results. It's fascinating to see everything that is at stake, and even if the show will go on.

 

Afghan Star screens at 7:30 p.m. today through Wednesday, and August 4-6.

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