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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 27 JULY 2009 - There have been few unmitigated successes among western exports to Afghanistan since the turn of the decade. Mostly there are naïve efforts in principle to bring democracy, establish peace, and abolish the burqah, let alone wholesale military campaigns attempting to drive out the Taliban.

So it is with welcome relief that one watches Afghan Star, the film that recounts the success of the American Idol -inspired talent contest that has been more effective - and infinitely less violent - than all the foreign troops in the effort to rout out the old regime.

It is hard to find fault with this uplifting documentary, which stands in glorious contrast to most of the deeply gloomy factual reportages to come out of the country in recent years.

Contestant on stage
Afghan Star
Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist

Where many other reports focus on the inevitable and sadly widespread violence, repression, torture, poverty and tension, Havana Marking's film uses a more subtle lateral lens through which to provide a deeper portrait of ordinary people's hopes in extraordinary circumstances.

Most Afghan documentaries are more macho. Male Afghan film makers, generally, have problems presenting gender impartiality, because Afghan culture (in its current context) limits their ability to gain access to women and local homes. Marking, being female, can go at least a little further.

The result is a more uplifting vision, not entirely optimistic and in no way glossing over the enormous challenges faced by the country today, but approaching contemporary challenges in a wonderfully fresh way, accompanied by striking images of locals partaking in non-hostile amusement and enjoying lively music of the type all-too-recently banned.

Afghan Star
Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist

The television show has afforded millions of people in the post-Taliban era the opportunity to watch the broadcasts and vote on mobile telephones for different contestants - men and women - from varied ethnic groups across the country.

The film highlights the continued tight and specific constraints in what remains a very traditional society, in which women are allowed to sing but not dance or dress immodestly. It shows the thick-skinned determination of the owner of the television station to present his contest despite religious radicals' threats, and the courage of the contestants as they overcome hardship and prejudice.

Contestant Lima Sahar on stage
Afghan Star
Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist

But it also touches on broader, tragicomic human traits, from the exhibitionist tendencies of wannabe superstars and the vanity of newly-famous contestants mobbed by fans, to the inevitable disappointments, as the contest progresses and contestants are eliminated, that lead to irrational transgressions.

Contestant Rafi backstage
Afghan Star
Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist

A televised talent contest may seem a rather unlikely inspiration for the successful integration of today's Afghanistan, but this particular import seems welcome.

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of and last wrote on the exhibitions Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Babylon: Myth and Reality at the British Museum in London.

Title image: Contestant Setara
Afghan Star
Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist

CALENDAR TIP: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers and travellers.

New York

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul
Through 20 September 2009
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10028
Tel: (1) 212 535 77 10

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