talent show that challenges gender, tribal and religious boundaries is
transfixing the nation's people - and antagonising religious scholars, reports
Observer, Sunday March 23 2008
article appeared in the Observer on Sunday March 23 2008 on p13 of the Business
news & features section.
people of Afghanistan came together in a moment of cultural unity on Friday. The
vast majority of them watched - some nervously in secret, others openly,
gathered outside cafes - as the grand final of the television talent contest
Afghan Star was broadcast. The weekly show had become a national phenomenon,
penetrating into strictly religious areas, bridging the gender divide and
challenging fundamentalist attitudes.
judges announced that Rafi Naabzada had won the popular text vote and was to be
crowned Afghan Star, his supporters across the country and in his home town,
Mazar-e Sharif, went wild. But even as the programme united viewers, it also
reflected tribal and religious differences. While the winner was a Tajik/Uzbek,
his disappointed rival for the title, Hameed Sakhizada, was a Hazara who could
not pull in as much ethnic support.
young British documentary-maker Havana Marking has been at the eye of this storm
since December, having travelled out to Kabul for the production company Roast
Beef Films. The trip was partly funded by BritDoc, the foundation set up to
promote British documentaries, and by More4 and Channel 4 International. The
deal was that while Marking, her cameraman and an editor trained the fledgling
production team making the show - many of whom had never seen a TV talent
contest, much less filmed one - she would also put together her own
Marking, the point was to present a different picture of the country: 'I was
frustrated that you never see or hear about civilians or young people here. This
is a country with 60 per cent of the population under 20. They are largely
ignored, but clearly they are the future.'
filming days, the makeshift TV studios in the back of an old Kabul cinema were
surrounded by armed guards and razor wire. Threats to staff at broadcaster Tolo
TV increased after the Afghan Council of Scholars called the show 'immoral and
un-Islamic' earlier this year.
of this, Marking has found few Afghans prepared to condemn the programme. 'I
found a council of village elders in Balkh who looked straight out of a National
Geographic cover and I was sure they wouldn't like it, yet within five minutes
they were arguing over who they would vote for.'
points out that the heavy security is just as much to protect those inside the
studios from the angry crowds that gathered when a favoured contestant was
thrown off as from religious extremists. 'The judges on the show genuinely had
to watch their safety if they eliminated someone popular,' she
finalist had ardent fans. One man drove for 14 hours to pick up posters
promoting one contestant, while another sold his car to raise campaign
filming outside the studio was done without notice, to lessen the risk of
kidnap. 'There's been a heightened security risk since the Serena Hotel bombing
in Kabul in January, so you had to be careful about where you filmed, making
sure there were escape routes, and you didn't get caught in the craziness that
Afghan Star has created. Being with contestants was like being with the Beatles
- they are mobbed,' Marking says.
Producers of the show at Tolo TV
were keen to create a star who could represent the whole country and every show
started with patriotic songs.
Afghan crew themselves are completely mixed and ethnic differences are
absolutely ignored,' says Marking. 'So it is ironic the last contestants were
from different tribes. However, everyone loves the fact they were competing by
SMS and not with AK-47s.'
defends the apparent triviality of the show, arguing it is about the dreams of
real people: 'They don't have the money or confidence to go to art school and
hang out in bands. And you don't need an education to have a good voice. It's
the same all over the world. In Afghanistan it's just a million times more raw
and powerful. There really is little else for people - both to be entertained
by, and to take part in.'
there were dangers for the production crew, she says they pale into
insignificance beside the courage of the contestants.
women who come forward to take part are taking a huge risk. When you think that
just 10 years ago women weren't allowed out without a male relative, then
singing on stage is amazing. The risk of being ostracised, dismissed or even
worse is huge.'
the semi-finalists was a Pashtun woman from Kandahar, Lima Sahar, who had learnt
to sing in secret and who, in spite of appearing on television as an aspiring
entertainer, still wore a burqa in her conservative home town. She faced hate
mail from those who regarded her participation as blasphemy, although her
bravery won her a broad fan base too. One girl in the audience said: 'I'm voting
for her courage, not her voice.'
story of Setara Hussainzada, a female contestant voted out in round seven, was
revealing too. 'In her final performance she just let go and danced on stage -
it was a very powerful moment,' says Marking. 'It was such an act of freedom.
There was a terrible few days when she received harassing phone calls, and her
family were frightened for her if she went back home in Herat. She will always
be marked as "the girl who danced" and I hope she will find a life and a husband
that allows that. For many women she was quite a hero.'
suspects Lima found much of her support at the expense of Setara. 'While Setara
was considered wild and modern, Lima played the "traditional Afghan woman" card
- never moving on stage and wearing completely traditional dress. She was always
with her mother and never flirted. I don't think she would have done so well if
Setara hadn't been there to take the flak.'
television industry in Kabul is only five years old and staffed by young people
who had never before worked in the media. Little remains of the thriving pre-war
film industry in the city.
has moved me most is that, despite all this, there is such kindness and
strength,' says Marking. 'Of course, I am only meeting certain people, but the
youth have such optimism and hope. It is almost heartbreaking. They are
desperate for the old culture that they hear their parents, or even
grandparents, talk about - a liberal, cultured time, with strong universities
and flourishing arts. You realise what a luxury it is to have "normal" peaceful
life, where you can discuss TV shows and not how many people in your family are
Marking's film, 'Afghan Star - the Power of Pop', will be screened first on
More4 later this year
recognises that Afghan Star is not going to change the country on its own and
that engineers and doctors are needed before singers. But she believes Afghans
need psychological help too: 'It is a country in trauma, and music can help
people forget things for a time. There is huge unemployment and gossip is a
serious problem too. Perhaps if people can talk about this, then they might not
talk about the woman who has to go out to work, or other such