Afghan Star – Dan Hancox & Tom Humberstone

WORDS Dan Hancox   |   PICTURES Tom Humberstone


The scene looks innocuous enough through western eyes: a young woman in a low budget TV studio shakes a leg in time to an inoffensive pop soundtrack, occasionally clicking her fingers with an outstretched arm, and gently rocking her shoulders. But the consequences were catastrophic for 22 year-old Setara Hussainzada, who was performing her swansong on the third series of the X-Factor-style show ‘Afghan Star’. She received death threats, was publicly condemned by Ishmael Khan, the Mujahideen and former Governor of her region Herat, and was forced into hiding, fearing for her life.

afghan_2Setara’s performance is the pivotal moment in a British-made documentary, also called ‘Afghan Star’, which won two awards (including Best Director) at Sundance Film Festival for Havana Marking, making her feature-length debut. The film follows four of the 2,000 would-be pop stars competing in the 2008 contest: Rafi, a Tajik boyband-type from the north of Afghanistan, Hameed, who is an ethnic Hazara, and two of the competition’s three female contestants: Lima, a serious Pashtun woman from Kandahar, and finally Setara, whose wide-eyed dreams of pop stardom could scarcely seem more universal.

Visiting Kabul for the first time, she takes a day out to go to the city Zoo. Is the performing instinct inborn, rather than culturally learned behaviour? Even from the outset, Setara is as bold as the peacocks displaying behind her: “when I’m performing on stage, and singing for the people, the feeling of freedom comes to my soul. I’m so happy! And this happiness even makes me feel like dancing.”

This bit of foreshadowing wasn’t taken literally at the time by Marking, who was as shocked as everyone else when Setara let her headscarf slip a little and danced on national TV – carefully, modestly, but still defiantly: “I had no idea it was coming, it was just astounding. But I think she was always capable of that – she said before she went on stage ‘if they don’t accept me, I’m going to make them’. She’s an extraordinary mix of absolutely irrepressible, headstrong rebellion, combined with complete naivete. In a way she’s not afraid of consequences, because she doesn’t think there are going to be any.”

Other Afghans, male and female, understood the consequences. After the audible gasp of the studio audience came the shaking heads – both sympathetic and otherwise. “She will pay a big price” said one fellow contestant, as they gathered around the green room monitors. As Setara proceeds to tearfully hole up in a Kabul apartment, another vox-pop back in her hometown of Herat brings the chilling response “she brought shame to the Herati people, she deserves to be killed”.

afghan_1There were also political consequences. The government-backed Ullema Council of Islamic Scholars met to consider the transgressions of Tolo TV, the station behind Afghan Star, and declared that dancing represented the ‘invasion’ of western culture, and would lead to the collapse of society. On their advice, a parliamentary resolution has now banned dancing from TV in Afghanistan. “That was the first official censoring of the media,” Marking points out, “and everyone allowed it to happen because the attitude was ‘well, it’s just dancing, it doesn’t matter’”. ‘Afghan Star’ demonstrates that it matters a great deal, not merely as a potential gateway to further censorship, but because dancing is itself a human right.

Almost two years since filming finished, it’s a relief to hear that Setara is doing well – she’s got married, had a child, and a brief pop career in Tajikistan. “As long as Kabul remains safe, Setara will be alright,” Marking says. “But it wouldn’t take much for her to become a target again: since we stopped filming things have really deteriorated. And yet, the last eight years have seen an incredible amount of change – it sounds ridiculous but the fact that Setara danced on stage and didn’t die is amazing, that’s an incredibly positive thing.”

It’s a common (sub)urban myth that more people vote in The X Factor than in British general elections, which is not only intellectually lazy, but also untrue – of local council elections as well.

It’s a common (sub)urban myth that more people vote in The X Factor than in British general elections, which is not only intellectually lazy, but also untrue – of local council elections as well. These kinds of reality TV shows are little more than entertainment in Britain, whatever angsty Rage Against The Machine fans might tell you about ‘sticking it to the man’. In Afghan Star there are the seeds of something greater – the kind of democratic unity that only mass culture can bring, unity that has wilted in the face of war and repression. The final of Afghan Star was watched by 11 million people, a third of the population, and Marking’s film gives rare cause for optimism. As Hameed adroitly said at a press conference in the wake of the Setara controversy: “we are from different ethnicities, but we are all called Afghans – and we are all called Afghan stars”.


Afghan Star is available through iTunes.