I was unable to make it for the one-off screening last year at the National Museum because of a good friend's wedding lunch, so I was thrilled to be able to catch it during SMU's Psych! Film Festival, which had this as the closing film, as well as director Havana Marking to be in attendance for a post screening Q&A session. Unfortunately I didn't bring the tools of the trade so I was unable to share with you the Q&A session as it was presented.
In any case, Afghan Star belongs to one of those films that I, and you should too, absolutely must see. Our perception and views of the war-torn country are just those images that are fed to us through the news channels, what with gun-totting terrorists and suicide bombers who don't second guess themselves before inflicting mass casualties, against a landscape and backdrop that always feature the ubiquitous coalition soldier and their heavy machinery. Our views of Afghanistan itself belongs to the Taliban era, with women in veils, and everyone living up to some extremely strict regulations and closed door society.
Which is now quite the surprise to see what I thought was some semblance of a normal life, with cities buzzing, and communities opening up and partaking in activities that were frowned upon years back. Central to this documentary is the reality TV show Pop Idol in Afghanistan, where once reality television would mean its infamous stadium where public executions would take place. Instead, it's now fairly modern with television sets abound, and everyone, like the rest of the world, stay glued to their sets for the latest installment to find the best singing sensation that the country can offer. What more, they get to vote too, in quite the democratic, consumer-capitalism process.
Of course I find this astonishing, because I'm never a firm believer of such a frivolous activity of entertaining oneself through the mass votes of anyone, which easily translates to an abuse of power and a skew of advantage toward the haves versus the have nots. But here as a society, this novelty of a somewhat democratic process has taken over in a very short span of time. After all, this form of reality TV has become quite the force to be reckoned with in television programming.
But the bigger value to be obtained from this film, from its narrative flow of following the Pop Idol contestants from auditions to the crowning of their Idol, are from the scenes which go behind and dig deeper into the contestants and their backgrounds, listening to their hopes and dreams, and observing first hand the accolades and the threats from the brickbats that they receive, especially the female contestants who still have to battle conservative minds dead set against their newly found freedom.
Such is the power of this film, bringing us close to sights unseen from the ground level, with incredible landscapes and environments to feast your eyes on things that are seldom seen, yet revealing that deep down we're actually sharing similar ideals, feelings, hopes and dreams, inevitably influenced through the powers of capitalism and consumerism, for better and hopefully not for worse.