Pop Idol, the British talent television series, has a lot of international spin-offs, including American Idol and Hrvatska traži zvijezdu (Croatia’s version). The series is popular in over 42 different countries spanning the globe. Therefore, when the Taliban bans on television and music were lifted in Afghanistan, it is no surprise that Tolo TV chose an “Idol format” for one of its shows. Afghan Star, the first televised talent competition, aired in September of 2005.
The contest is open to everyone; there are no restrictions on age, gender, or ethnicity. Many view the show as a real step forward for democracy (everyone and anyone can vote for their favorite contestant using a cell phone) and cultural unity (since it features contestants from around Afghanistan).
Afghan Star, the documentary, follows four contestants in the third season of the show: Rafi, Lema, Hameed, and Setara. Lema and Setara are both female. Their performance styles are pretty different. Whereas Lema is the more conservative performer who stands still on the stage and sings, Setara moves around a little as if she’s dancing. Setara’s performance doesn’t sit well with some in Afghanistan, especially older generations. Even some of the producers of the show are shocked when she lets her head scarf slip during her last performance. The consequences of Setara’s actions are heartbreaking.
The documentary does a wonderful job in presenting life in Afghanistan. It features ordinary people, some with televisions that watch Afghan Star, some without. Although it doesn’t discuss the United States presence in the country, there are a number of moments when you are aware of the war.
Can a television show radically change a society and bring people together? Well, eleven million people watched the finale of the third season. That is one-third of the population of Afghanistan! It is also important to note that sixty percent of the population of Afghanistan is under 21 and many have grown up with television shows like Afghan Star.