MARCO WERMAN: Next door in Afghanistan, there's a television show called ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½ that's so popular up to a third of the population has watched it. Keep in mind, this is a country where electricity is erratic, and TV sets are a luxury. ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½ follows the tried and true format of shows like ï¿½American Idolï¿½. But as you can imagine, the format plays out a little differently in Afghanistan. A new film, also called ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½, documents an especially controversial season. The World's Ken Bader has this sneak preview.
KEN BADER: The TV show ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½ is a lot like ï¿½American Idolï¿½. A couple of thousand people with varying degrees of talent compete for a cash prize and a recording contract. Judges whittle the field of singers down to a reasonable number and then viewers vote for their favorites by cell phone. But what's merely pop culture in the US is an exercise in democracy in Afghanistan. Saad Mohseni is one of the executive producers of the documentary. He's also co-owner of the TV network that created ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½.
MOHSENI: This program, all of a sudden, allowed people to vote. People could campaign. Younger people knew that their vote counted. And it has contributed to people understanding what democracy and voting's all about.
BADER: The film ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½ covers the final few weeks of season 3, in early 2008. The film's director is Havana Marking. She says the four finalists had different reasons for participating in the competition.
MARKING: First of all, we have Rafi, who is sort of young. He's very handsome. He just wants to be famous because he wants to be famous. He's a kind of pretty boy that young girls and mothers like. There's Hameed, who is from the Hazara ethnic group, who are very kind of discriminated against and always been a kind of downtrodden tribal minority in Afghanistan. And for him, his role in taking part is very much to try to give his people a role model, to try and prove that his people can be equal if not better than the other ethnic groups. We have Lema, who's from Khandahar, a very conservative area. But she's doing it, essentially, for the prize money. There is no income. It's an incredibly poverty-stricken country. I mean, it's like the 5th poorest country in the world. So she's doing it because she just wants the prize money. And so she's willing to risk her life, genuinely for that. And then we have Setara, who in the end kind of becomes the real hero and main character of the film. And she performs because she just loves to sing. And you know, no one's going to stop her.
BADER: Setara doesn't quite make it to the top, but she creates the biggest stir. After she's voted off the show, Setara is invited to sing one final number. Now, as film director Havana Marking points out, in previous performances, Setara had moved a bit more than is considered proper for an Afghan woman.
MARKING: But in this time, she just couldn't stop herself and she basically ï¿½ she dances. In the process of dancing, her headscarf falls off. And the important point is that she doesn't bring it back up. So it's just an extraordinary scene of her dancing on stage. Her hair is flowing freely, and she's pointing at the camera and it's a defiant moment of freedom. It's just electrifying.
BADER: Setara becomes the talk of Afghanistan. And much of the talk, says director Havana Marking, is about how inappropriate Setara's performance was.
MARKING: The scandal of Setara's dance is growing, and a local politician ï¿½ he's actually a cabinet minister and an ex-warlord from the Herat region ï¿½ he goes on local TV and pronounces to everyone that she has insulted Herati people, she's insulted the morals of the people there, she's insulted the death of the martyrs that have died for the country. I mean, he really sort of ramps it up, and it's a very sort of clear political manipulation. As a result of that, then the young men and people of Herat become wound up and furious abut this and see Setara's action as exactly that ï¿½ as an insult to them and their people, and that really they are furious about it. And it gets this tension building and building and building, and in the end, someone does say she deserves to die for what she's done.
BADER: He says, ï¿½She's a flirtatious girl. She brought shame to the Herati people. She deserves to be killed.ï¿½ It doesn't quite come to that. Setara survives the controversy. And her story stands in for the wider struggle in Afghanistan, between fundamentalists and moderates, old and young, traditionalists and modernists. The competition to be the next Afghan Star has a clear-cut winner. But director Havana Marking says Setara is the real champion.
MARKING: She is a wonderful example of how, really, people cannot be repressed. There are some people who are just born to express themselves and be free. And if you're in a society that is repressive, you might get killed for that. But there are some people that just cannot be repressed.
BADER: ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½ starts today in New York. The film is scheduled to open in theaters across the country throughout the summer. For The World, I'm Ken Bader.
WERMAN: You can find a link to the ï¿½Afghan Starï¿½ website at theworld.org.