Silencing The Song: An Afghan Fallen Star debuts tonight on HBO 2 at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Havana Marking’s documentary Afghan Star told the surprisingly riveting story of Afghanistan’s tentative steps back toward a western-style popular culture, via a televised singing competition. The movie covered the contradictions of a country where millions of people watch TV and listen to secular music in private and then loudly protest the people who produce that filth. Afghan Star also introduced people outside Afghanistan to Setara, a losing contestant who touched off a national scandal when, during her post-elimination song, she danced and allowed her head-covering to fall.
Silencing The Song: An Afghan Fallen Star catches up with Setara, who like the typical American Idol loser spends the year after her defeat trying to capitalize on her fleeting moment of fame. But Setara has two strikes against her. First, because she’s famous in part for her televised blasphemy, she has to stay off the streets and away from the many, many religious conservatives who’ve insisted that she should be put to death. Second, she’s had to put all future performing engagements on hold while she returns home to have her first child with her new husband—a former fan who’s too embarrassed to tell his family who he married.
For the most part, the point of Silencing The Song is the same as Afghan Star. Marking shows Setara receiving covert encouragement from fans in enclosed shopping malls (where she promises them that despite her pregnancy, she’s “the same old Setara… still naughty”), and then Marking shows her watching the interviews from Afghan Star in which men on the street called for her execution (to which Setara scoffs, “If you were man enough, you would’ve killed me already”). Marking means to show the injustice of a vocal contingent bullying their neighbors to prevent them from enjoying themselves.
But the specifics of Setara’s story make Silencing The Song more depressing than Afghan Star. We see her selling her guitar to raise money for the baby and reduced to practicing her craft in a sympathetic music shop. We see her hounded by police, who are sure she’s up to something inappropriate behind closed doors, especially with Marking’s cameras following her around. (That Setara is so defensive and combative is no help.) And we see her giving birth to a sickly baby boy and worrying that his health troubles are a punishment from God.
Marking closes on images of children under the credits, which could be read as a hopeful note, a reminder that a new generation may have new values and be able to change the status quo. But then the previous film seemed hopeful too, with its scenes of Afghan men, women and children picking up their cell phones to vote for their favorite singers. And yet here Setara sits: a famous and beloved entertainer living in constant fear of her future.