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Zeitgeist Films

Up from rubble

Movies | Afghan Star shows a people recovering from radical Islam

Issue: "Hurtling toward havoc," Aug. 1, 2009

People came from all over Afghanistan to compete in Kabul's competition show Afghan Star, but it looks like the apocalypse made it there first. In Havana Marking's striking documentary of the same name, the city of Kabul is nothing but bombed-out rubble and a few run-down buildings, occupied by a worried people clinging to a fragile society.

With this backdrop, Marking could easily have made the film about miserable people, but instead, it's about a happy people constantly put down, like a nation of Cubs fans. "When we do not have war in Afghanistan, we have earthquake," mutters one of the show's contestants after a tremor ruins a shot.

American Christians frequently deplore the liberalizing effect of a vapid media on society, but in Afghan society, which actually (and desperately) needs to be liberalized, a silly weekly contest program can have huge and wonderful consequences.

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The most incredible of these comes when a young woman, upset over losing, takes off her hijab during a live broadcast in defiance. There are the expected death threats, of course, but there's also the wonderful sight of women at the final show, sitting in the audience with huge smiles on their faces and lovely, uncovered hair down to their shoulders.

It's worth remembering that the country, thrown into darkness by the Taliban, was not always a miserable place to live. Old footage from 1980s Kabul reveals a place as vital and vibrant as any American city, with a music scene and a fashionable youth culture.

Now, the place looks like a bad let-the-kids-dance sci-fi movie from that decade, where children are terrified of helicopters and-no kidding-music was outlawed until very recently. Marking's movie simultaneously exposes radical Islam as a real, tangible evil-one that excuses any kind of violence or cruelty, so long as it is directed at women-and allows for an equally real ray of hope: that, with the Taliban driven out of Kabul, these people may sing their way to freedom.

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