May 11, 2009 / 12:38 PM / in 10 years

Afghan pop idol a boost for democracy: UK filmmaker

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - As Afghanistan prepares to go to the polls in August, a new type of democracy is sweeping the country — a controversial Afghan “Pop Idol” show where even women have strutted their stuff on stage.

British filmmaker Havana Marking captured it in “Afghan Star” a documentary that follows four young contestants as they compete in a talent show similar to Britain’s X-Factor or American Idol and where viewers vote for their favorite singers via mobile phone text messaging. Marking talked to Reuters.

Q: How is the show changing the country?

A: It is creating a new identity in Afghanistan, in that all tribes are equal, men and women are equal, rich and poor are equal, these things are incredibly radical ideas in a tribal elder society. To have people from the same ethnic group being judged in the same way, obviously men and women, but to have a rich guy singing next to a poor guy - that is an incredible and radical vision of what the future could be like in Afghanistan.

Q: In what sense has the show taught democracy?

A: I think what’s important in terms of democratic training - is that it has taught people how to lose because when you are from a warrior society, losing is an insult, it’s an insult to your clan, an insult to your family, so you have to take revenge, that is the whole nature of a warring tribal culture. If you can lose with grace and lose with dignity and you can still be respected, you can get second place and the fact that someone from a different tribe came first and you came second, it doesn’t mean you are not going to be a successful singer, it just means you can come back and try again next year. And that is really a key part of democracy actually, is that you lose and you realize that the best man won. I didn’t realize what a sort of cultural attitude that was.

Q: Could you elaborate on the voting part of the show?

A: Voting, that is a big thing, the actual taking part in democratic votes. Again where you have one vote for one person, where everyone is equal and you personally have an influence on an outcome, is again incredibly empowering and very important. There is an element of people voting for their own but at the end of the day, there is no one tribe in the majority there, so if you want to win, you do have to appeal beyond your cultural identity.

Q: Was there bias in voting in the final part of the show?

A: In the final, there were three different people from three different ethnic groups - so clearly a certain proportion of the country would be voting for their own ethnic group, that’s always going to be the case and I don’t think there is anything weird or wrong about that. If someone sings in your language and your style, you are going to understand it better and like it more. It’s not purely a racist thing where we are going to only vote for our own people, it’s just the music you like and each culture has its own style.

Q: Seeing as 60 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 21, what impact has the show had on young people?

A: A third of the population watches those shows and the team making this program is incredibly young, the same age as their audience. I think one of the important things it has done is galvanized the youth, it has really given the youth a culture and identity, so that a young person in Afghanistan wants to associate with another young person more than with his tribe for example or with his clan.

Q: What effect has the show had on women in Afghanistan?

A: If you think eight years ago, women were not allowed out of their houses and if they were not covered and so on. For women to even be allowed on stage is an incredible step forward. Even though Setara (one of the finalists) went through incredibly difficult times, she wasn’t killed. Ten years ago, she would have been killed no question.

Q: What effect has the TV series had on Afghan music?

A: Their music industry has been crushed, it has been illegal to sing, and singers were beaten or put in prison or exiled. There really has been no music produced in Afghanistan for a long time, so this is really finding new stars and giving people ways to kind of learn and show their talent.

Q: What’s the message behind your documentary?

A: In terms of a mechanism for making a film about Afghanistan, it’s actually been the most powerful and the most useful in terms of humanizing Afghanistan. What our film is doing and I think is a more important role is changing the way people look and understand Afghanistan. That’s the point of our film really, is to make people realize around the world the issues that people face in Afghanistan but also that Afghans are human beings like the rest of us.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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