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TV Review: Eye-Opening HBO Doc About “An Afghan Fallen Star”

by Caryn James
January 26, 2011 2:30 AM
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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.

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  • Eric Jarvies | March 27, 2011 8:45 AMReply

    Setara is an interesting example of a footloose and fancy free woman born into an otherwise extremely rigid religious part fo the World. The stork accidentally dropped her off in Afghanistan, when it should have dropped her off in America.

    I have no right to judge ANY person for the way they live their life, and I will certainly not judge Setara. I would however like to point out that in Setara's taste for life, including having sex/making love with a man, as is evidenced by her pregnancy/birth, it makes me wonder what would have happened if she had had options available to her, like abortion or adoption. I fear harsh judgement by her people, prompted(forced) her to get married, and if that was indeed the case, then Setara will not doubt be in for an entirely other adventure in her life... like divorce.

    I am married and have 5 children. My first child was with a woman out of wedlock, my second child was with my first wife, and my 3rd, 4th and 5th children are with my second, and current wife. So I do understand a bit about this topic. When I was younger, my girlfriend got pregnant, and she had an abortion. I remember how difficult this was for both of us, because it went completely contrary to our religion, to our family, and to our neighbors and society in general. But we had the option afforded us. I can only imagine what our lives would had been like if this had happened to us in a place like Afghanistan. Don't get me wrong, in comparison, especially to Americans, the Afghan people are meek, kind, virtuous, this is obvious. The Afghan family unit is strong, and much of this is attributed to the fact that their strict religious laws have done a fairly good job at preventing sex from occurring until a man and a woman are married. And even though I did not grow up in an overall society that instilled and enforced this intolerance towards sex out of wedlock, I admire it tremendously. The reason I admire it, is because I am now in my 40's, and I had my first child when I was only 17, and my last child when I was in my late 30's. In hindsight, knowing what I know now, I would not encourage anyone to have children until they are at least 30 years of age, or have experienced enough life to warrant such an endeavor. I teach my children, and encourage them, to first live a full single life, go out and partake of the World, and when they have amassed knowledge, are responsible enough to care for themselves for a prolonged period of time, then consider starting a family. There is no rush. However, when we are young, we are sexually active, sex is so exciting, thrilling, fun, and in our youth we are at our prime as it relates to sex, so this is undeniable. I feel it's extremely difficult to abstain from sex when young, and so I feel that because it is a naturally occurring sensation and desire, that it is in fact natural, and not to be condemned. So it's a question of having safe sex, for the sake of not spreading viral deseases, and for the sake of not having children at a time when one is not ready to handle such great responsibility.

    I think it will be a long time before Afghanistan and it's people have any type of infrastructure in place to deal with such things, and I fear many young woman will find themselves in similar situations as did Setara, as does Setara find herself now. The case can be made by the religious side(Taliban, Afghan culture, etc.) that Setara is a victim of the bad things the Taliban and the religious dogma warn against. And then the case can be made that she was/is young and sexually active, and it's her body and it's her right. Many other cases could also be made, and I'm sure folks passionate about their cases will make them.

    Setara would make an ideal example of why birth control and birth options(adoption, etc.) are so very important to any culture/society, even Afghanistan, who enforce the virtues of their young woman with strict religion. But, as we know, it is impossible for a society to control an individual, and an individual will invariably make choices in their life, and some will lead to pregnancy. If a young Afghan woman finds herself pregnant, what options does she have available to her? Is it possible to have abortions in Afghanistan? Is it possible to adopt? Are condoms available? Are there any organizations available to young Afghan woman that may inform them of such matters? I would be saddened to learn that young Afghan woman who find themselves pregnant, end up dying due to amateur abortions. Or to learn of woman hiding their pregnancies, giving birth in secret, and abandoning the babies.

    Perhaps Setara may find her calling in this type of advocacy? Who better tthen Setara?

    Respectfully and without judgement,

    Eric Jarvies

  • Martina | February 14, 2011 2:54 AMReply

    Setara, you are a beautiful and talented singer. I was moved by your documentary on HBO. You are very courageous and an inspiration to many women in Afghanistan. I'm glad to hear you're safe in Germany and I wish you all the happiness and success you deserve.

  • Angelica Osborne | February 8, 2011 4:58 AMReply

    You are so beautiful & talented & I am so proud of you! I hope your life is full of many blessings.!

  • Setara Hussainzada | January 29, 2011 1:55 AMReply

    Hello This is Setara Hussainzada here ! thank you all to care about me i am since 3 mounts in Germany !
    a realy save and lovly place !
    Thank you !
    Setara Hussainzada
    PS: my Fans can contact me on facebook
    Setara hussainzada

  • phonda | November 1, 2013 12:43 AM

    i added you on facebook setara,,i admire you for what you did,boy your country needs to go with the new times..this is the 21 of you..keep singing and dancing

  • rin ron | January 27, 2011 5:48 AMReply

    Setara has the courage that thousand of male afhgans do not have... she deserve respect and needs to leave the country for good.

    Good look Setara. wherever you are.

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