One of my favorite bands, The Avett Brothers, have a lyric in one of their songs claiming, “May you never be embarrassed to sing.” Since viewing Havana Marking’s documentary, Afghan Star, this lyric has been on repeat in my brain, reminding me, as Afghan Star aptly illustrates, if embarrassment is all that we have to risk, then we are risking very little. In her feature length directorial debut, Marking journeys into recently independent Afghanistan to explore the newly created television program Afghan Star. Following four contestants as they compete for the $5,000 prize, Marking exposes the inspiring and passionate citizens of a country shrouded by war, violence, and tyranny.
The film opens with a close-up of two little boys. One, whose face and eyes appear to have been violently damaged, sings sweetly into the camera and when he finishes the other states simply “If there was no singing the world would be silent.” From this point on Afghan Star weaves a complicated narrative that instigates dialogue about the power of having a voice, and the ideologies that determine what voices are heard and by who.
In 1996, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan created a ban on music, dancing, and singing. The ban was lifted in 2004, but as history has taught us all too well, a change in politics doesn’t always result in changing people. Most of those interviewed in the film, from the show’s producers to townspeople, equate singing with freedom; however, the concept of freedom is abstract and intangible. It is defined within the boundaries of Afghan politics and Islamic religion, leaving little room for the inclusion of Western liberties and autonomous behavior.
This is most evident in the subtle, yet disturbing, fulfillment of traditional gender roles. Both of the male contestants whom Marking chooses to focus on are met with great hope and respect by their communities. But when interviewing the families and supporters of the female contestants the responses are overwhelmingly concerned and fearful, or rife with ulterior motives. As the male contestants campaign openly in public and receive adoration from fans, the women are hidden by their burqas, unable to be recognized.
The contradiction is striking, yet the women are complicit and seemingly unaware of their alienation. However, the most drastic display of sexism occurs when Setara, one of the two female finalists and by far the most dynamic of all the contestants, is eliminated. While performing her final song, Setara “dances” on stage while also allowing her head scarf to fall revealing her hair. The result is scorn from her fellow competitors, eviction from her apartment and death threats so fierce and overwhelming, she fears returning to her hometown.
For those of us in the West, Afghan Star presents a thoughtful exploration of the life we so often take for granted: freedom of speech, the privilege of choice, and the unnecessary luxury of television and its star-making programs. But, above all, this film is a riveting reminder of the power, freedom and endless possibilities we hold in our voice and that no matter how we may use it, we must never be embarrassed to sing.