In the Fall of 2005, Afghanistan was experiencing the results of the American "war on terror," which had promised to make life better for the multi-cultural Afghan people. One perk of the presence of the Western alliance was the creation of an American Idol like show titled Afghan Star airing on TOLO TV, which premiered in September of 2005. Men and women, side by side competed for the top prize, to be named the country's Afghan Star and go on to record professionally. In its first incarnation, the show was pretty basic, and British filmmaker and producer Havana Markings made a wonderful documentary around it titled, well you guessed it, Afghan Star.
But fast forward more than 15 years. It is around 2019 and the U.S. are on the verge of making a disastrous retreat from Afghanistan. The programme is still on the air, now including celebrity judges and women and men dressed in the technicolor beauty of Afghan ethnic fashions. Among the judges, the beautiful Aryana Sayeed, a sometimes controversial figure because she is an Afghan woman pop star and activist. Being an independent, courageous member of the female gender in Afghanistan is seen as an act of rebellion. Although this idea, this intrinsic misogyny that we can read if we pay attention carefully between the lines is not a message simply perpetuated by the Taliban, it is a worldwide problem present in all kinds of men, from all classes and within every society. Afghanistan may supply us with the megaphone amplified version of the issue, yet in the U.S. these days we have just seen a reversal of Roe v. Wade, which the media would like us to believe is supported by women in their 20s. It doesn't get any more woman-hating than that.
Examining the implications of our gender war is where And Still I Sing comes in. The documentary is an impressive, well thought out film by Afghan-Canadian writer and director Fazila Amiri. It features the story of Aryana, but also two of the show's female contestants, Zahra Elham and Sadiqa Madadgar, one on the verge of being named the first woman Afghan Star at the end of the show's 14th season.
Filmed during the lead up to the Taliban takeover of the country, which happened as soon as U.S. troops left Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, And Still I Sing is a powerful cinematic work, which benefits from the beauty of its protagonists. To have three women as its leads, and three talented, courageous artists who nurture and celebrate their own roots on top of that, is what I imagine a filmmaker's version of winning the lottery is like. Amiri makes good use of the beauty of her protagonists and also their spectacular talent. Zahra is a Qawwali singer of Hazara origins, an ethnic group which is mostly Shia and makes up the majority of the population of Afghanistan. Sadiqa is a boxer who likes to cycle around her hometown of Kabul and instead of becoming a dentist, as her family wished, started to sing professionally. The common thread between the girls is Aryana, the only female judge on the show whose flamboyant sense of style and unapologetic sex appeal make her spellbinding.
And Still I Sing is filmed phenomenally by Persian-Iraqi DoP Duraid Munajim whose other work includes a collaboration with Iraqi helmer Mohamed Al Daradji on both The Journey and Son of Babylon, and several documentaries as well as some TV series. Munajim presents the audience with an intimate view into the lives of the three women at the centre of this important film and films them in that fly-on-the-wall manner that makes for precious viewing.
Where Amiri falls short perhaps is towards the film's ending, as there are about ten minutes of anti-Taliban footage which feel superfluous, but perhaps only to someone who has watched endless hours of Western media coverage of the U.S. troops withdrawal. It is the same shortcoming found in most Western media coverage of Saudi Arabia, where the information about Jamal Khashoggi's death is dredged up to make a point. Because let's face it, every country on this planet is guilty of some human rights violation at the moment and this black and white view of the world, "us good, them bad" has proven not to work diplomatically -- only discussions and negotiations do.
But all in all, watching And Still I Sing will enlighten and entertain the viewer, while also inspiring in those of us who are fashionistas a yearning for a shopping trip to an Afghan store. And a search for the music featured in the film, on Spotify.
Canada, 2022, 90 mins
Dir/Writer: Fazila Amiri
Prod: Lesley Johnson, Fazila Amiri
Exec Prod: Amy Green
Cinematography: Duraid Munajim
Editor: Mahi Rahgozar
Music: Reza Moghaddas
All images courtesy of Sheffield DocFest, used with permission.