I’d like to be more enthusiastic about Havana Marking’s Afghan Star than I am, but the fact is that it’s simply not as compelling as it ought to be. It’s well made. It offers a fascinating look into our culture as applied to another culture. It’s shrewdly structured to contain an element of drama—even two of them. But it’s just a little too flat-footed as filmmaking to suck you completely in. Ms. Marking lacks the sense of urgency to pull it all together.
Don’t misunderstand. This documentary about the Afghani version of American Idol is good and worth a look, but I was never swept up by it emotionally. I think I know why, but let’s look at what works about the film first. The idea of following the four finalists in the show—and looking at their diverse tribal backgrounds—provides the film with a solid framework. Better still, it offers the inherent drama of finding out which contestant will win. And since one of the two female contestants—Setara Hussainzada—is a rule breaker who goes beyond the dictates of Islamic religion (she shows her hair and dances during a performance), we’re given a much more potentially dangerous drama, since this results in death threats. (One interviewee simply states that she “should be killed.”)
All four contestants—Raafi Naabzada, Hameed Sajhizada, Setara Hussainzada, Lima Sahar—are likable, even if their talent might seem fairly limited to anyone without a taste for the kind of songs they perform. That’s simply a case of cultural difference and is beside the point of the film, which is to examine the possibility of a show like this cutting through the regional and tribal differences of the contestants and the people voting for them. The program is seen not so much as a talent show, but as a pop-culture phenomenon that has the ability to move Afghanistan a little closer to a sense of national unity. This aspect of the film is fascinating and what makes it important.
However, I think the film falls down in its emotional impact mostly due to Marking’s heavy reliance—which may have been inevitable—on the technically crude footage of the actual show. Here’s a case where a little technical panache would have gone a long way toward making the question of who will win as exciting to the viewer of the film as it is to the contestants and the TV viewers. Instead, it’s just sort of there. The results are sadly lackluster, even if the concept and the intent are admirable. Not rated.