The Hip-Swaying Afghan Star

Contestant performing on AFghan Star
Setara Husseinzada performing on Afghan Star. (courtesy of Afghan Star Documentary)

In British director Havana Marking’s documentary Afghan Star — which chronicles the lives of four contestants competing in Afghanistan’s version of American Idol — the crucial moment is not a vocal one but a visual one: Contestant Setara Hussainzada from Herat City shocks viewers by removing her head scarf and swaying her hips during her final performance. The Idol-like show was already quite a shock to religious leaders who consider pop music anti-Islamic, but its success has become a symbol of emancipation and cultural revivification for women and men.

While much has changed in the years since filming Afghan Star—which screens on HBO tonight—Marking says that the controversy over Setara’s moves has mostly died down.  No woman has danced on the show since then, but more women have turned out for auditions in recent years.  “The Taliban has now said that even if they got back in [power] they wouldn’t ban music,” Marking says.

As a follow-up to Afghan Star, Marking has just completed a short film on Setara’s life after Idol, which illustrates difficulties many women face in still-war-torn Afghanistan.“She got pregnant and there were horrible complications—what happened to her is what happens to a lot of women there,” says Marking.  “Healthcare is minimal and I’m sure that if it had been in the Western world her baby would have been alright.”

Afghan Star will air on HBO March 18th at 9 p.m. Star Struck: Setara Act II will be released later this year.

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Amanda is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles, where she earned her MFA in Critical Studies & Writing from California Institute of the Arts. She recently completed a memoir, and is now working on book of poems, as well as a series of essays exploring the dynamics of forgiveness, reconciliation and national recoveries from mass atrocities. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Explosion Proof Magazine, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press), Delirious Hem, Nanofiction, Night Train and others. She was a nominee for the 2010 Million Writer's Award.