Afghan Star, Havana Marking’s illuminating 2009 doc about the Afghan version of American Idol, leaves you wondering what happening to its most compelling character: not the young man who won the competition, but Setara, who responded to being voted off by doing more than singing in her modestly veiled costume. She actually danced – scandalous enough even in the post-Taliban years – and let her scarf fall off her head, leading to death threats against her. Now Marking give us an eye-opening follow-up about Setara, who is not quite the rebel many viewers might have expected. .
The title lets us know what we’re in for: Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star premieres tonight on HBO 2 (8:00 ET). Afghan Star itself will be shown just before (6:30 ET), and I highly recommend both. They’re lively close-ups of Afghan culture today. (Photo above is Setara in Silencing the Song; below, from Afghan Star.)
The new half-hour film begins by revealing that Setara left Afghanistan to pursue her music career, but when she learned she was pregnant returned to Kabul and, as the films says, to “the father of her child,” a man named Yama. The documentary picks begins there, with Setara eight months pregnant and Yama suddenly referred to as her husband. The film deliberately glosses over the question of whether she was single when she became pregnant, which would have been another unimaginable scandal. Marking explained, through HBO, that she never got a straight answer herself.
Yama will not show his face on camera, fearing for his safety. Setara says she will not leave the apartment unless she is armed, but she welcomes the film crew into her life and her home, eager to be heard. She is a confused mixture of silly and defiant, a woman who appears to have been an impulsive rather than a thoughtful rebel. She has no regrets about her dance and falling veil; she was simply expressing her deep unhappiness, she says, and wouldn’t have cared if all her clothes had fallen off. She watches a clip from Marking's Afghan Star in which a man says she “deserves to be killed,” and laughs, “Then why am I still alive?”
But Setara also says she married because she wanted to be taken care of. When her husband is late taking her to a doctor’s appointment, she complains about her loss of independence, but sounds less like a woman who wants to be free than any newly married woman still adjusting. Ultimately the film crew takes her to the doctor’s and we later see Marking in the apartment helping to hang an intravenous drip given to Setara because she was dehydrated. Such matter-of-fact transparency is refreshing, when so many documentaries inadvertently raise questions about how close the filmmakers got to their subjects.
Setara's music career fades to the background and the film takes a sharp, sadder turn when Setara learns there are problems with her pregnancy. The baby is her life, she says, and the last part of the film is the story of trying to save her child.
Like Afghan Star, Silencing the Song is not preachy. Marking’s sympathies are obviously with Setara, but she doesn’t pretend to have found a revolutionary. Together, these two engrossing films offer a powerful sense of how pop culture is trickling into Afghanistan’s post-Taliban society, and of how slow, impeded and reluctant change actually is.