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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Thousands of contestants auditioned from all over the country, millions tuned in, text messaged in their votes, and the winner gets cash and a promise of stardom, except this is not "American Idol" but "Afghan Star."

And finalists faced threats from the Taliban and local warlords. Religious leaders rule the entire enterprise un-Islamic. And fanatical fans fire up their generators to power their TVs so they can watch the show.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: A new movie about "Afghan Star" is showing this week at SILVERDOCS, the documentary film festival at the AFI Silver Theater here in the Washington, D.C. area.

Filmmaker Havana Marking follows the contestants to their home provinces, talks to their fans and the show's producers as they struggle with a forum that challenges cultural and religious traditions in a society where just a few years ago music and television were both banned by the Taliban.

If any of our listeners were in Afghanistan and watched "Afghan Star," give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org and tell us how you follow the program.

And Havana Marking, the director of the documentary, and Jahid Mohseni, the executive producer of the TV show have joined us here in Studio 3.

And good to have you on the program today.

Ms. HAVANA MARKING (Director, "Afghan Star"): Hi.

Mr. JAHID MOHSENI (Executive producer, "Afghan Star"): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And this is a remarkable program. And let me turn first to you, Jahid Mohseni. And did you consider, when you started this program, when you green-lighted it, when you say, let's go ahead and do an "American Idol"-type program in Afghanistan, that it was going to have this kind of impact?

Mr. MOHSENI: To be honest with you, no. I mean, we weren't sure about what kind of an impact it would have. But we knew that there was a big gap in terms of the music industry in the country. There - whenever we had a program on - we started radio in 2003, the first radio station, a private radio station in the history of the county, and we knew that there was a fundamental gap.

And when we did our research, when we spoke to people, everyone gave - you could see it in their eyes, the response was very positive. But we weren't sure how much of a hit it was going to be. And we were all very surprised. Up until about the top five in the first season, it was still touch and go. And people were complaining about why we have these bad singers coming on television and ruining the music.

But after top five, those same people suddenly started saying, well, you know, number three is very good. You should make sure that he wins. And we had to go back and say, well, this is an SMS points. If you want him to win, you should send an SMS and make sure that he wins.

CONAN: An SMS - a text message…

Mr. MOHSENI: A text message, yeah.

CONAN: …is what we would call it in this country. And by the time you were doing this, you were tying up the entire cell phone system in Afghanistan.

Mr. MOHSENI: Yeah. We were - I mean, but people - obviously, it was something very new. People weren't used to texting in and selecting who their singers were. People were getting fairly, fairly crazy, I mean -and the whole interactive process is something very new for the country.

So, similarly to the process we have in terms of the politics, the engagement of the public, the involvement of the public in the content, was something very new. So people were getting very involved.

CONAN: And this is pop music in a place where, well, as we mentioned, just a few years ago, pop music was outlawed.

Mr. MOHSENI: That's true. But the history, if you go back a little bit further - as you would also see in the documentary, I mean, we have a long tradition of music in the country from a very long time ago. And people - even from hundreds of years ago, we have people like Rumi who...

CONAN: The great poet. Yeah.

Mr. MOHSENI: ...the great poets that were based out of Afghanistan -originated from Afghanistan. So we've got a long history of culture. And then music is part of that.

CONAN: And let me turn to you, Havana Marking, because one of the things you do in the documentary as Jahid just mentioned, is you show us a tape of a concert in Kabul back in the 1980s that looks like it's from another planet.

Ms. MARKING: I know. It's wonderful, isn't it?

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. MARKING: I thought - I mean, it's wonderful, electro pop, Afghan electro pop. It was brilliant.

CONAN: And pictures of young women walking around the campus in Kabul looking like they might have been, well, almost anywhere in the world. We forget that Kabul was a - at least in places - a very cosmopolitan city in those days.

Ms. MARKING: Absolutely. Yeah.

CONAN: And at the same time, as this program goes on, some of the contestants are female, some of them shock not only their fellow contestants, but people back home. And their lives are threatened because they're breaking taboos.

Ms. MARKING: Mmm. Absolutely. It's - for women to take part, it's still incredibly brave.

CONAN: And there's a moment where one contestant in particular, she is just voted off the show, and as we have in this country, she gets one last song before she takes her bow and leaves - and dances on TV. And this causes people to literally gasp as they watch this.

Ms. MARKING: Yeah. I mean, it was. And being there backstage at that moment was a completely electrifying moment. I mean, she dances. Her headscarf was off. And it's just this - it's just an amazing image of freedom and liberation of a young woman.

I don't think she had any real understanding of what the action was then going to become. At the time, it was just an emotional thing for her. She just sort of couldn't stop herself. But at the time backstage, we knew this was something extraordinary happening.

CONAN: And then you go back to her hometown, Heart, in western part of Afghanistan, and there are plenty of men there you talked to who say she's a whore, she should be shot.

Ms. MARKING: Yeah. The interesting thing is that before that happened was that, you know, people were shocked and you - but it takes us a bit of time for that shock to realize itself in terms of is this going to be - are people going to be horrified by it, or is that shock going to turn into sort of excitement or, you know - you're uncertain.

One of the local warlords goes on TV. He's - well, he's next warlord and now a cabinet minister called Ismail Khan, and essentially condemns her. But he does, in a way - I mean, he totally uses it as a political manipulation to try and sort of draw back his power from Kabul.

So, of course, the victim is a young woman. And I think those young men were absolutely fired up by what he had to say. It's just another example of some of the complexities of the country.

CONAN: There's another young woman who's among the finalists in the competition, Lima, from Kandahar, which is, of course, the hometown of the Taliban as well.

Ms. MARKING: Yeah.

CONAN: And there's a fascinating moment when she's asked on camera, are you still taking voice lessons secretly in Kandahar? And she replies, everything is secret in Kandahar.

Ms. MARKING: Yeah. I mean, I've got to say that's one of the few times when the burqa, the complete covering is actually…

CONAN: The veil drops off.

Ms. MARKING: Well, she, you know, she can walk around in her hometown and no one knows that it's her from the TV. So she's - that was one of her protections in a way in Kandahar. And it's really secret. And again, she was very, very brave.

CONAN: And, Jahid Mohseni, did you think - there must have been a moment when you were in production here that you thought, oh my gosh, people are risking their lives to be contestants on my television program.

Mr. MOHSENI: Yes. I mean, we've gone through this over a long period of time. We started a news service. Most of our news journalists risk their lives every day. So it's kind of a process. I mean, we're facilitating social change. What we're doing is not pushing our view of the world. We are facilitating the youth and the new generation in particular and those that are the solid majority in order for them to be able to push things, in order to be able to do things that they want to do.

As always, whenever you're doing something like that, there are elements that push back, but the idea is that you keep going, you keep moving, you don't spend too much time analyzing things because you generally end up with lots of people saying no. But you keep moving and before you know it, you've created a change.

CONAN: And one thing that surprised me, there is a point when the religious elders of the country meet and issue a directive about this program, saying, basically, it's un-Islamic. You're corrupting the youth. You should stop.

Mr. MOHSENI: Yes. There's always these tensions. The problem is that we are an Islamic country, but there are different models of Islam around the world. You've got the Turkish model, you've got the Dubai model, you've got the Indonesian model, a Malaysian model. The problem is that Islam is used as a general term for things that are politically-driven or motivated. But there's never been a wide range in discussion as to what kind of Islamic politics or what kind of Islamic system that we have.

So for us, we keep pushing. And for us, we stick by the letter of the law. We, you know, we want to - if someone says you need to cut this, we want to be explained to as to why we need to cut this. Where is the basis in law in this? Otherwise, we will keep pushing. And we are very mindful of the audience. In Afghanistan, the TV access, not TV ownership, is about 50 percent.

What that generally means is the people watching television are watching not just with their nuclear family, they're watching it with their uncles, their grandparents, et cetera.

CONAN: They gather around the…

Mr. MOHSENI: That's right. Yeah.

CONAN: …the one TV set that they can get the electricity to power for.

Mr. MOHSENI: Right. So whatever you're producing, if you want to be a successful TV station, you cannot be radical, because by default you won't be watched. We have the largest viewership in the country and that is because we're targeting specifically for the mainstream. And this is one of the wonderful things in terms of what Havana has captured and which is one of the problems we have: Generally, the extreme views or the radical views tend to get more of the attention, but the silent majority are really that - silent.

And the story of "Afghan Star" was not necessarily about music versus the Taliban, but it was about what is going on inside of Afghanistan, how is it that people have this perspective of what Afghanistan is. But when you look at it, there is a program that is based around music and pop culture which draws 80 percent market share in a country where everyone is watching it together with their extended family.

CONAN: The kind of together moment where everyone in the country - this is everybody's - on everybody's mind. That can't happen in this country anymore.

Mr. MOHSENI: Yes, yeah. I mean, we are very lucky we are still in the 1950's of, I guess, U.S. television, where there's still no cable. Internet is obviously very low penetration. So television and radio really…

CONAN: And was this program followed outside of Afghanistan, the considerable Afghan Diaspora outside?

Mr. MOHSENI: Yes, very much so. We have a stream that broadcasts into the U.S.,. We also have a Web site, afghanstar.tv, where we put clips, et cetera - lots of people commenting, lots of people sending messages and people getting involved.

And as I said, up to the first top five, it was kind of interesting, people are more complaining about the poor quality and then suddenly took off.

The season that Havana managed to capture very well into the documentary was season three. We subsequently did season four, which finished in March last year. And you could sense a different in every season - sense a difference in every season not in terms of just production quality, but also in terms of audience reaction.

I think that "Afghan Star" now has become effectively a cultural icon and is defining the generation of music that's now coming out. And there was a big gap between early '80s where our Afghan Elvis, Ahmad Zahir -for lack of a better word, is equivalent to an Elvis because he was so, so popular - he passed away. And since then, we've had a large period of silence. And now, we're seeing about 50 percent of the music that's being played on television or on radio, that's generated by young Afghans inside Afghanistan.

CONAN: We're talking with Jahid Mohseni, CEO of the Moby Group, an Afghan media company and executive producer of "Afghan Star." Also with us Havana Marking, who did a documentary of the same name for Channel 4 in Britain. It's now showing at the SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival here at the Silver Theatre in the Washington, D.C., area.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Havana Marking, let me ask you, why did you decide to - did you see this as a way to look at Afghan society through the prism of this program?

Ms. MARKING: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it's - you know, Afghanistan can seem, you know, to an outsider and someone unfamiliar with the region, Afghanistan can seem very complicated. Its history is kind of epic and extraordinary: its so many different ethnic groups, there's the religious issue, the gender issues - all these things can become very sort of confusing from an outsider's point of view.

And the - you know, this clear-cut story of an "American Idol"-type show, "Afghan Star," allows, I think, everyone to sort of almost soak up those complexities without even realizing it. I mean, by fortune, the film actually sort of actually becomes almost like a political thriller in the way the narrative plays out. I mean, it's dramatic, it's gripping, it's all the things you want from a good film.

CONAN: And addition to having men and women in the finals, they are representatives of different ethnic groups: the Tajika, a Pashtun and Hazara. And these are stories in and of themselves.

Ms. MARKING: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And we learn a great deal about the history of Afghanistan. But, Jahid, I wanted to ask you, we, in this country, we hear about the struggles of the military competition, the Taliban on the rise in Afghanistan, the difficulties of the situation throughout the countryside, the warlords, the opium - we look at this film and then we see on at least a cultural level, you see this film, you have to believe Afghans are not willing to go back.

Mr. MOHSENI: I think so. I mean, we've been - as a nation, we've suffered through a long period. We sacrificed effectively over a million people fighting the proxy war for the West and effectively bringing down the Soviet Union. And I think people have had a long period of suffering. I don't think you'll find any member in Afghanistan, any citizen in Afghanistan who has not lost a family member throughout the war period. And that's pretty gripping.

I mean, if you walk down the street, imagine in the U.S., you ask anyone, have you lost a family member to a war? And they say, yes, my uncle, my cousin, my brother, my father, my sister. So it's a tragically scarred country, and people do not want to have that. Human beings are ultimately human beings no matter where they are. And Afghans are not from Mars. They still want peace and security. They want to get on with their lives.

Now, there's political complexities, obviously, which are being assisted with from our friends in the West. The key thing I would say is that we need continuous engagement, you know, we need the involvement of our international partners, not necessarily militarily, but we need the assistance to move on and become a nation that is standing on its own foot and delivering services to the people.

CONAN: And I want to point out that one of the most extraordinary stories that Havana Marking tells in this picture is not only the stories of the contestants, and those are compelling in and of themselves, but the story of the presenter of "Afghan Star," Daoud Sidiqi. Tell us a little bit about him.

Ms. MARKING: Yeah. He's a wonderful character and very inspiring. He's sort of mid-30s - early to mid-30s guy. But he - not only is he a brilliant TV presenter, but he also has a, sort of, whole history as kind of being under the resistance movement under the Taliban.

CONAN: He was a TV repairman.

Ms. MARKING: Yeah, he used to repair and smuggle. And, you know, sort of at night, there was this huge network of people who were listening to music quietly or secretly. I mean, it was an amazing thing. And I think…

CONAN: But it was going to - being part of the resistance to repair televisions in those days, had to be done at night in the dark in a backroom.

Ms. MARKING: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, he was risking his life for that. I mean, that's - I think one of the things that is important to understand is - you know, Setara, one of the contestants, she's risking her life to be on the show. But she's risked her life - you know, she's risked that all her life. She used to go to secret schools under the Taliban.

It's not - you know, these sort of - this level of risk that people take, you know, we're shocked by it, but I mean, people in Afghanistan have had to deal with that for a very long time. And it's a wonderful thing that hopefully now there can be some sort of hope, stability and development there.

CONAN: And just briefly, the threats against the two women, ultimately, they're both okay?

Ms. MARKING: They're both okay. They're both okay.

CONAN: I don't want to give away the ending, but…

Ms. MARKING: Yeah. And I mean, and extraordinary as it may sound, that is progress. I mean, that is progress. You know, it wouldn't be so long ago where both of them would have, you know, lost their lives.

CONAN: Havana Marking, thank you very much for your time today and good luck with the film.

Ms. MARKING: Thank you.

CONAN: Havana Marking is the director of the new film "Afghan Star," our thanks. Also to Jahid Mohseni, the executive producer of the TV show it predicts, "Afghan Star," thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. MOHSENI: Thank you.

CONAN: They joined us here in Studio 3A. The film opens in New York on June 26 and we'll open nationwide shortly thereafter.

Tomorrow, we wrap up our series of conversations about the documentaries at SILVERDOCS with "Cooking History," a film that looks at modern warfare from the perspective of the chefs. We'll also talk with Virginia senator, Jim Webb, about his plan to overhaul the U.S. prison system, why he thinks he can succeed where many others have failed.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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