If you believe that bringing the questionable virtues of "American Idol" to Afghanistan would do that beleaguered nation no favors, the remarkable documentary "Afghan Star" will change your mind in an instant.
For this eye-opening film reveals that even systems as dubious as the "Idol" format mean dramatically different things when transferred to radically dissimilar cultures. In the context of Afghanistan, the show's core idea becomes moving, dramatic and significant in ways it simply isn't in the West.
In the process of letting us in on all that, "Afghan Star" also tells us considerably more about the current state of that country -- where the only known pig is in a zoo and women in burkas rush to take cellphone photographs -- than a more sober-minded film could manage.
The first feature by British documentarian Havana Marking and the winner of both the directing and the audience awards at Sundance's World Documentary competition, "Afghan Star" first lets us know that music and song of all types have always been critically important in Afghan culture. "If there were no music," says a small boy whose singing opens the film, "humans would be sad. There would be nothing."
That is exactly what happened during the years the Taliban ruled the country. From 1996 on, it was a crime to listen to music or to watch it on television, and death threats related to music were apparently not uncommon.
It was in this context that, once the Taliban were pushed out, a company called Tolo TV and a young producer named Daoud Sediqi, who repaired illegal TVs in secret during the Taliban years, came up with the idea for an "Afghan Star" television show in order to "move people from the gun to music."
While American TV producers worry about audience share and profitability, Sediqi (who has since received political asylum in the U.S. after fallout from the show) had other things on his mind. For one thing, he hoped the show would encourage national unity by urging people to vote for favorites across ethnic lines.
For another, though voting was done exclusively by mobile phone, the whole idea of voting in any context was a new one for the younger generation of Afghans, who found this kind of ballot casting to be more involving than parliamentary elections. "Politics brings misery," says one person, "but popular programs bring enjoyment."
The heart of "Afghan Star," as might be expected, is the four final contestants who vie not only for the title, but also for a cash prize and a possible recording contract. Each one is fascinating personally but also representative of larger issues and conflicts.
Least controversial is Rafi, a 19-year-old from Mazar-i-Sharif who has the looks and moves of a tyro pop star. Still, he worries about personal security, saying, "These days, for every friend, you have 100 enemies."
The other man in the competition is Hameed, a classically trained singer, who, as a member of the traditionally exploited Hazara minority, hopes that his visibility will help his people gain equality.
Though most of the contestants on "Afghan Star" were men, two of the finalists were women. Lima is a Pashtun from Kandahar, an area of the country so traditional she has to practice singing in secret. When she arrives in the capital city of Kabul for the show, a friend jokes that she so covered up that "she looked like a suicide bomber."
The last contestant profiled is Setara, a young woman who is more Western in dress and outlook. She appreciates music as "the language of emotion," but it is her emotions that threaten to get her into trouble.
No matter who wins the title of Afghan Star, this is a competition not to be forgotten.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: At the Nuart in West L.A.