You Can Sing, but You Can't Dance

AFS Documentary Tour: 'Afghan Star'

You Can Sing, but You Can't Dance

The beginning of Havana Marking's Afghan Star suggests we're in store for something along the lines of an (Even) Kabul Loves and Does American Idol, this version set to the pulsating soundtrack of a verité-style Slumdog Millionaire and the backdrop the stunning Afghan scenery. But as the film progresses and we stand back from the glitzy bright lights of the earnest Afghan Star vocal competitors, the drum-rolling decisions of the judges, and the backstories of the four leading contestants, we find ourselves wading into territory closer to that plumbed by Liz Mermin in 2004's The Beauty Academy of Kabul. The takeaway for both being a nuanced look at the indefatigable, music-loving, ethnically diverse people (60% of whom are younger than 21) who inhabit the country that inhabits so many of our news cycles.

Imagine, a third of a population of 11 million, turbaned, head-scarved, and bare-headed alike – for many, their first voting experience – energized to campaign for and then feverishly text their votes for their hometown favorites in the nationwide Afghan Star competition. Folks in dusty villages climbing onto their roofs to jury-rig makeshift TV antennas in anticipation of the finale's broadcast. Television repairmen doing a brisk business of (archaic) TV repair, in cramped shop spaces behind false walls, a relic of the Taliban-era ban on television. These are the people who, since 1979, have been under the thumb of either the Mujahedeen or the Taliban, their love of music stifled by the former and banned altogether – along with television and dancing – by the latter. Finally, in 2004, the Taliban routed, the Afghans were seemingly free to sing and dance and return once again to the relatively unconstricted cultural milieu they enjoyed 30 years ago, before all their troubles began.

In theory, at least. Even without the Taliban overlay, Islamic law, as we know, is not without its extreme strictures. This being something that the women, two of the four finalists, will learn only too well as the competition progresses. One, in modern dress and Bollywood makeup, dares to actually move rhythmically and let her head-scarf slip while singing on stage. This results in a state of near-pandemonium for both the live audience and the viewing public, a hue and cry of moral outrage against Afghan Star producers, and death threats for the 21-year-old singer. In the end, we're left with an understanding of what Afghanistan's youth, its women, and any push for modernity are up against in a country with so many layers of deep-seated repression.

Plus ça change ....

AFS Documentary Tour presents Afghan Star Wednesday, July 1, at 7pm at the Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth). Tickets are $4 for AFS members and $6 for the general public. For more info, see

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Afghan Star, AFS Documentary Tour, Havana Marking

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