Pick Afghan Star: Compelling Reality TV, Without Simon Cowell in Sight

Slumdog Millionaire, the documentary. Deservedly a Sundance prizewinner, Havana Marking's film follows the American Idol knockoff produced in Kabul for a newly unified national television audience. Viewers from Afghanistan's major ethnic groups vote for their favorite singer by cell phone, watching from satellite dishes rigged with chicken wire. This is a case of entertainment chronicling entertainment, and Tolo TV—a post-Taliban startup with several English-speaking producers—undoubtedly shapes the narrative and grooms its stars for Afghan Star. Each finalist from the tribes represented—Pashto, Hazara, Dari—parrots the Tolo TV line about uniting the country. Claims are made for cross-ethnic voting, but these are impossible to verify. (SIM cards are bought and sold in blocks, the film acknowledges, making it possible to stuff the ballot box.) But you know what? Who cares? This isn't Frontline. Rather, Marking gains remarkable access to reality TV in the Third World, and she dramatizes her real-life story with a quartet of funny, flawed, likeable, and ambitious young singers. It's like The Hills interwoven with life-and-death politics. Fatwas are issued against one contestant, a woman who dares to dance on stage. (Slut!) Another finalist politely applies the verbal stiletto to his male rival thusly: "You don't have a voice, but you have beauty." Afghan Star has its limitations, but it's truthful and it's fun.

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