'Afghan Star'

Not the slickest or most crowd-pleasing performance-competition docu, but it's nonetheless absorbing.

Entertaining “Afghan Star” looks at the titular “American Idol”-like TV show, hugely popular yet also a magnet for criticism — including death threats — from those who think its Western-style pop frivolity an affront to Islamic law. Not the slickest or most crowd-pleasing among many recent performance-competition docus, it’s nonetheless absorbing for the light it casts on those many Afghanis who want an end to guns and fanaticism, and the return of a social liberalism.

Already blighted by foreign invasion and civil wars since 1979, the nation, under Taliban control in 1996, saw music, dance, film and television banned. When those restrictions were lifted eight years later, an explosion of new broadcasters included Tolo TV. Its still-running “Star” stoked both regional pride and national unity as ethnically diverse singers from all over competed for the top prize in a glitzy “Idol”-esque weekly showcase. Focus here is on four finalists from a couple seasons ago — two of them women whose participation riled many, after one rebelliously uncovered her head and danced a bit. Despite worsening trouble from the Taliban, this competently crafted doc maintains an upbeat, pro-democracy tenor.

Afghan Star

Afghanistan - U.K.

Production

A Channel 4 Documentary Foundation production in association with Tolo TV. (International sales: Channel 4, London.) Produced by Havana Marking. Executive producers, Mike Lerner, Martin Herring, Saad Mohensi, Jahid Moheni. Directed by Havana Marking.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Phil Stebbing; editor, Ash Jenkins; music, Simon Russell. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 16, 2009. English and Afghan Persian dialogue. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Setara Hussainzada, Rafi Nabaazda, Hameed Sahkizada, Lema Sehar, Daoud Sediqi.

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