September 9, 2009

300 Words About: Afghan Star

[Afghan Star was scheduled to open this Friday, September 11, at the Landmark Lagoon Cinema. It has just been dropped from the booking schedule and I have no idea if/when it will actually arrive.]
I don't know why I've never warmed to "American Idol" at any time during the last decade (can you believe it's been nine years?), but I think part of the reason is because it's always seemed to be less like a singing competition and more like a pop-friendly talent show. This is exactly what it is supposed to be, of course, but my point is that it's not really about well these people can sing. It's about how good they look as pop stars.

You need look no further than Susan Boyle, who became an overnight celebrity, literally a household name, not because she could sing well (she couldn't), but because she didn't look like she could sing well. Maybe it says something about Western influence in Afghanistan that "Afghan Star", the equivalent of "Idol", appears to be just as image-obsessed as its American predecessor. But that's where the similarities end.

If you lose in the final rounds of "American Idol" you can still count on a good five year career as a singer. If you lose in "Afghan Star" it can mean a return to the daily struggle in a war-torn country, which is not so bad when compared with the death threats contestants (particularly female contestants) encounter if they simply present the wrong image of themselves on the show. These people are playing for keeps, which makes Afghan Star, the documentary about four finalists in the third season of the show, a compelling cultural study. And also 88 minutes of sweet relief from Ryan Seacrest.

I won't spoil the movie by revealing who wins the competition, but if you really want to remain in suspense, stop reading now. I'll only say that I expected some dramatic twists - maybe even extremely dramatic twists - that never materialized. It's certainly for the best as far as the subjects are concerned, but based on the synopsis and poster (of course I didn't watch the trailer until after the movie), I thought I was in for something much more disturbing.

Not that I would have liked to see that, but as it happens the only real weakness of Afghan Star is that these disturbing issues aren't fully explored. We learn that dancing on stage is bad, women have completely lost their identities under Taliban rule, and contestants represent each of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. I guess I just wanted a little more depth, a few more voices.

Nevertheless, I think I'd much rather watch Afghan Star (or "Afghan Star", the actual show) than "American Idol" because the stakes are real. Even the host of the season of "Afghan Star" that's profiled in the movie is desperate to cash in on the show's success: having arrived in the U.S. for the first time earlier this year to promote the film at the Sundance Film Festival, he skipped out on his flight back home.

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