The British documentary "Afghan Star" boldly handles a rich, involving subject - the emergence of an "American Idol"-like TV show in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The film's essential fascination and integrity swamp any qualms about its pacing or all-around moviemaking.
Most Americans are aware of religious subcultures that ban dancing. The Taliban banned music itself. Playing instruments and singing have become inspirational releases in a land still starving for liberty and beauty. Just as Western rock helped bring down the Iron Curtain, "Afghan Star" suggests that Eastern pop will break up Afghanistan's ethnic and sexual divisions and traditions of patriarchal tyranny.
Noting that the Taliban also outlawed television, director Havana Marking lays out the meanings of this video phenomenon with admirable clarity. In contrast to the voting for "American Idol," which has often roused controversy over the manipulation of new technology, the voting for "Afghan Star" has become an immediate and intense experience of democracy for people of either sex and all ethnicities: one person, one vote, via cell phone, without threats or punishment.
For the budding stars, of course, the repercussions are risky and complicated. Hameed finds his position as a finalist a rallying point for fellow members of the often-persecuted Hazara minority. Lima, a 25-year-old woman from the Pashtun ethnic group, must rehearse in secret whenever she goes home to Kandahar. The most electric moments of the movie come when the daringly modern 21-year-old Setara, from the conservative town of Herat, breaks into a truckin'-like dance and doffs her head-scarf.
The movie leaves you poised between fear for these women and hopes that the 19-year-old front-runner, Rafi, an ethnic Tajik, will be proved right. Rafi believes the spirit behind the show will provoke a new Afghan unity among men and women of all tribes - and make the souls of his compatriots "come alive again."
MPAA rating: unrated
Running time: 1:28
Starring: Rafi, Lima, Hameed and Setara as themselves.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Directed by Havana Marking.