Is she the next Britney or Beyonce? |

Is she the next Britney or Beyonce?

Greg Marshall, Of the Record Staff

Eleven million Afghans gathered around televisions in cafes and shops to witness a watershed moment in their country’s fragile democracy in the spring of 2007. But rather than watching election results or an inaugural address, they came to see who would be their next freely elected pop icon.

A spin-off of "American Idol," "Afghan Star," now in its fourth season, is a television phenomenon in the war-torn country. For those who lived under Taliban rule for more than 30 years, the show is also their first encounter with the democratic process.

Havana Marking, a British citizen, filmed "Afghan Star" from November to April 2007. She first heard about Afghanistan’s most popular television program from war journalists. "I knew instantly that it would be an amazing story," Marking said in an interview last week. "Everyone was so focused on the war. I wanted to find out what was happening outside the war."

The 87-minute documentary follows the film’s familiar format, complete with judges who evaluate performances and viewers who text-message votes into the studio, as in inroad into some of the issues facing the country.. "Because we’ve shown Afghanistan through the eyes of something we can understand, it’s an easy way to get into the country," Marking explained.

Daud Siddiqi is Afghanistan’s answer to "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest. He hosts and directs "Afghan Star." He has slick black hair, piercing eyes and a leading man’s striking profile. He shouldered immense risk in starting the program, even as it has gained popularity. During the first season, about a thousand people auditioned for "Afghan Star." For season four, 2,700 people sang and danced for their chance to win over the still-conservative Muslim nation. "Not everyone agrees with singing and dancing," Siddiqi said. "But I know about my show and my people."

Siddiqi has spent most of his life under Taliban rule. Although televisions were banned, he would surreptitiously fix them for people and risked his life to smuggle western music into the country. "After that," he said, "I became a crazy person."

With the fall of the Taliban in the middle of the decade, Siddiqi made his love of mass media official. He found jobs in television and radio, where he worked as a producer and director.

He knew a televised singing competition would be popular in Afghanistan he had seen version of "American Idol" televised in Australia and the United Kingdom but he also knew the format of the show would need to be tweaked to play to an Afghani audience.

The judges for "Afghan Star" are polite, and producers of the show strive to make the experience rewarding for performers and audience members rather than cutthroat. About six in 10 of the people who try out for "Star" are under 21 and they sing different genres of music. "I know a lot of people love singing and dancing," Siddiqi said. "I know this and I made this show. Every human is the same."

When Marking approached Siddiqi about documenting a season of the show, he eagerly accepted. Marking was in the country less than a week when three bombs exploded near where she was staying. Unharmed, Marking said the close calls made real the perils of living in a country ravaged by armed conflict. "This is dangerous and Afghans live through it every day," she said.

The film that resulted from the experience eloquently expresses the power of popular TV, Marking said. "It’s a very interesting message for filmmakers," she explained. "What you put on TV does influence people. I think we’re so blasé about popular culture [in the West]. It does matter if there’s sexism and racism on TV."

Siddiqi reiterated the idea that mass media matters. Not only does "Afghan Star" give performers in the country a platform, but it also serves as a way of portraying a rarely seen side of Afghanistan: it’s music and culture. "Our show is very important in Kabul," he said. "We want to show other countries to please know us. We love everything in life. Everything is not war."