Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Something to watch


Given our increased commitment to rooting out terrorism in Afghanistan, every American man, woman and child needs to see the documentary Afghan Star (2009), a portrait of the local version of American Idol, which, according to the film, is providing a new level of social cohesion and peaceful celebration of differences and similarities among the variegated tribes.

The film does not break new ground aesthetically, but it is very well directed and edited; one of those documentaries in which the filmmakers are either exactly where you want them to be at this point in the story, or they have cleverly contrived to make you want to be exactly where they take you. Their lead characters, the four primary contestants emerge as rounded and complex characters, given their limited screen time, as do the ancillary characters, such as the host-producer, who clearly sees music, television and the Afghan Star program itself as powerful forces of social and cultural liberation for his country. (Heartbreaking indeed for a Westerner are the scenes of Kabul in the 1970s, before the Soviet invasion, scenes of the happy, progressive, exciting city so fondly recalled in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.)

Progress does not move in all directions, at least not at the same rate. One female contestant, performing her final song after being eliminated from competition, deliberately begins to dance and (deliberately or not) lets her hijab slip from her head. This brings a storm of controversy, anger and even death threats to her in her home community. On the other hand, the remaining contestants are all from different tribes, yet their competition is clearly seen as a friendly rivalry, and many Afghanis elect to support contestants from different groups than their own. Moreover, voting by cell phone for their favorites is the most universal and effective form of participatory democracy that many young Afghanis have ever experienced. (A Taliban attack on use of cell phones after dark poses a threat to this process at one point in the story.)

Americans should see this film not only to know what is going on in Afghanistan and to see the changes taking place, but because you will come away genuinely liking the Afghan people. No, they're not just like us, that's not the point. But you have to admire their endurance, perseverance, even humor at times, like the women who chuckle for the camera as they sit with their heads uncovered at the taping of Afghan Star. And the children who begin to see that there can be an alternative in life to doing what your great-grandfather did. And the Pashtuns who have learned to enjoy Hamsara songs.

Maybe we could replace all wars with the World Cup and Pop Idol everywhere...

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