Opening Friday at the Varsity, the new documentary Afghan Star (review) might sound like a knock-off of American Idol. The documentary follows the made-in-Afghanistan TV hit Afghan Star, which is based on the British TV original, Pop Idol, created by none other than Simon Cowell. But as director Havana Marking explained when she visited town for SIFF this June, the indigenous Afghan talent competition has a very different vibe. "Afghans don't watch American Idol or listen to American music," she says. "They listen to Iranian music and Uzbek music. And they listen to Indian and Pakistani music; so Bollywood is a huge influence. It is different in that the judges are not rude to people. There's no humiliation in the way that Simon Cowell does it. It's a very respectful culture, and the audience wouldn't have it."
What's more, according to Marking, unlike our voting for, say, Adam Lambert, for Afghans to vote for their favorite singer on TV is a profoundly political act, one that's transforming the country...As the contestants on Afghan Star and their fans energetically campaign for votes, it's like democracy on training wheels. "That hasn't happened before," says Marking. "That's really exciting to see--the galvanization of people."
Marking further explains, "The concept of the talent concept isn't new," since in the old days, pre-Taliban and even pre-British colonial rule, the king might select entertainers for his court. "What's new is the technology and being able to vote--making it the people, rather than the king, who decides. This is a kind of training for democracy, in a loose way."
There's been proliferation of new media in Afghanistan, a largely unregulated country. Television, produced on several satellite channels broadcast independent of the government, has been embraced, says Marking, for some obvious reasons: "TV is ubiquitous. There's no theaters to go to; there's no cinema to go to. So watching TV is the only real family entertainment. It's safe; you watch TV in your house. And that's one reason [the show] has been so successful."
This is especially true in Kabul, where most of her documentary was filmed. Outlying areas are less safe, she adds. And the farther you get from cities, the more conservative the potential TV audience. There in the Taliban strongholds, Marking admits, Afghan Star (the show) has less of an audience: "In the really rural area, everyone's really poor. There is a definite divide between urban and rural."
As for the rest of the country, "It's difficult to get real figures, but it seems like one-third of the country watched Afghan Star's [final episode]. Sixty percent of the population is under 21. The median age is 17, so that's an extraordinary demographic.
"There has actually been an explosion of media--radio and TV stations. There are a certain number of national TV stations that are considered quite dull and conservative--in terms of programming. Tolo TV, the makers of Afghan Star, kind of exploded onto the scene as the most popular and the most-watched by youth."
Crucially for Marking, as she readily discusses, the corporate parent of Tolo TV co-produced her documentary. Otherwise, she'd never have gotten such intimate access with its contestants. She explains, "Kaboora Productions... that is run by the Mohseni brothers, the Mohsenis were executive producers on my film. They were actually brought up as refugees in Australia. And came back [to Afghanistan] since the fall of the Taliban. They are a commercial business, and they don't pretend to be anything other than a commercial business. It's not government or charity or propaganda. But that's what's brilliant. It really reflects what the country wants.
"They make programs that the youth want to watch; and in 10 years' time, those youth are going to be influential and important people that have the future of Afghanistan in their hands. No one's listening to them at the moment. Our media and our government forces and our diplomats are still talking to the old guard--the warlords, the mullahs."
Kaboora/Tolo TV had no editorial control over the documentary, which won't be screened back in Afghanistan. This is "to protect the people in it," says Marking "A lot of the women who were in the film wouldn't have been there if it were going to be on national [Afghan] TV."
In the meantime, Marking hopes to do a follow-up documentary back in Afghanistan, where she's a frank admirer of the new media culture. Of Tolo TV, she says, "Their news department is independent. And their news will say when a government minister is corrupt. Tolo TV has got a political satire program. They are always pushing the boundaries. The reason why they're able to do that it because they're so successful commercially." In effect, the success of Afghan Star underwrites those news operations.
Much like the insidious-slash-liberating effect of Western media as they were beamed over the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, Marking sees a similar pop-culture phenomenon at work in Afghanistan today: "At the moment, there's complete freedom of the press. It's great. They show Bollywood soap operas. They show programs like 24."