Who would have guessed that an American Idol type of singing competition show could bring enlightenment, democracy and change to a nation? Of course not in the U.S. - our version only inspires cruelty and insipid syrupy belted versions of stale Whitney Houston songs. But in Afghanistan, their version of the show, Afghan Star, may just be dragging a country that has been plagued by decades of wars, poverty and tribal fighting into the twentieth century where everyone believes that becoming famous is the goal of life.
Directed by Havana Marking, the documentary Afghan Star is the most fascinating peak into Middle Eastern media since Control Room five years earlier. Here we follow four contestants, each with different ethnicities from different parts of the country who risk their lives to sing on television. If you think the divisions of the States or regions in U.S. can be tense, Afghanistan's animosity between neighbors keeps the country constantly on the brink of a mini-civil war. But after years of Taliban repression (where television and singing were banned) and still a strong conservative Muslim arm in the country, the contestants and the show’s producer/host Daoud Sediqi are convinced that what their country needs is music and they are eager to give it. Even having a woman sing on TV is still considered radical and leads to a number of dangerous incidents which are well covered in the documentary. The film also does a great job of humanizing the Afghan people who show that no matter how dire the country seems to be, the contestants and the show's audience (at least a third of the country are regular watchers) are still so full of hope. On Afghan Star the theme songs from The Sound Of Music and Footloose are still alive, playing out with life and death consequences.
The Long Good Friday
The DVD box has a blurb from an old review that compares it to The Godfather, but in all actuality the very British pulp gangster flick The Long Good Friday is much closer in spirit to TV’s The Sopranos. Matter of fact, it’s fair to say that The Sopranos is a direct descendent of this crime and politics saga. Bob Hoskins, in a brilliant, star-making performance, carries the film as Harold Shand and, like Tony Soprano, he’s a two-bit street punk who has worked himself up the criminal food chain; instead of New Jersey he runs London. Like Tony, Harold fancies himself an ambitious businessman. He thinks the gaudy opulence he surrounds himself with gives him class and makes him legitimate. Also like the TV show, his wife plays a key role in his life - she’s almost a First Lady of the underworld. Unlike Tony, Harold seems to be devoted to his wife Victoria (played by the great Helen Mirren, just hitting her stride in her important run of great film and TV roles). She seems to be a little more posh than him and like his fancy boat, helps him feel like he’s arrived. Harold also has a crew of devoted lieutenants, the younger ones treat him like a father figure. Although maybe what makes these husky, bearish gangsters resemble each other most is the complicated rage that they desperately try to control. Even when they know revealing their true sociopathic nature can be bad for business, they just can’t help themselves.
With The Long Good Friday, British television director John Mackenzie, on a very modest budget, inexplicably made probably the best English gangster film ever. Inexplicable because though the guy continued to work in film and TV for decades he never made anything else of note. Nor did screenwriter Barrie Keeffe, who also came from the small screen, and who, after the acclaim for The Long Good Friday, never had another screenplay produced (he went back to TV). These two guys, along with the strong collaboration from Hoskins (who also came from TV at the time), would create such a special little gem that would help usher in a mini resurgence in home grown independent British film in the '80s (British film meaning paid for by the pound, not the dollar).