The Taliban outlawed music for five years. Now hopes are high that this hit show can unite Afghanistan's diverse ethnic groups and help bring an end to conflict. Daoud Sediqi, who presented the first three series, once said that the show's aim was "to take people's hands from weapons to music". Sediqi - who rebelled against Taliban rule by secretly repairing people's video recorders - wasn't exaggerating Afghan Star's huge influence. The final was watched by 11 million people, a third of the Afghan population, all voting for their favourite singer by mobile phone; for many, it was their first taste of democracy.
The progress of last year's tumultuous series was followed by a British film crew. "We were incredibly lucky," says director Havana Marking, whose vivid documentary focuses on four contestants. "This was when the series became really big, and everything fell into place. In the final 10, selected by the judges, there were two women. And all the ethnic groups were represented." In January, Marking's documentary (also called Afghan Star) took two prizes in the Sundance film festival's world cinema category: best documentary director, and the audience award for a documentary.
The film, funded by More4 and the BritDoc Foundation, receives its British premiere in London this Friday. On the same day, the fourth series will reach its climax - but with one important difference: Omaid Nizami, an air steward, is now presenting it in his spare time. Sediqi travelled to Sundance to promote the documentary, and never came back.
In Afghanistan, Marking worked with a very small crew: cameraman Phil Stebbing (who also did the sound), a driver, and a bodyguard (who was an Afghan wrestling champion). "Mumtaz, our driver, had been in prison for a week under the Taliban because he was found with a music cassette. He was a great music fan, and my guide to Afghan music," she says. The security situation meant that, for fear of kidnap, Marking couldn't set anything up in advance. "So we'd just follow the action, turn up, drink tea, wait for the moment to shoot and leave. It brings an energy and spontaneity to the film."
Music has been caught in the crossfire in Afghanistan for the last 30 years. During the 1970s, Kabul had miniskirts, rock concerts and Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis - still universally popular in the country today, despite dying in a mysterious car accident in 1979. That same year, the Soviets invaded to prop up the communist government. Although music was still permitted on radio and TV, musicians were required to support the regime.
When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, after years of brutal resistance from the Mujahideen, civil war broke out between opposing factions. Mostly Islamist in outlook, the Mujahideen placed restrictions on music and outlawed women singers. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, they restored order but put a total ban on music and TV.
The Taliban fled Kabul in November 2001, when America and her allies invaded. Throughout this time, Afghans' love of music has never wavered. "If there was no music," a boy too young to remember the Taliban says at the beginning of Marking's film, "humans would be sad. There would be nothing."
There were just three women among the 2,000 people who auditioned for Afghan Star. The fact that two made the final 10 suggests a little positive discrimination was employed (judges whittle the numbers down to 10; text-messaging then decides the winner). The documentary follows these two women and two men. "I want to be famous so I can sing for my people," says Rafi Nabzaada, a 19-year-old Tajik. The most cocksure of the contestants, he is filmed going to the shrine of Hazrat Ali in his home city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where an imam prays for his victory.
Hameed Sakhizada, 20, is the most musical of the four. He is Hazara, from the centre of the country, where the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban, and has an interest in traditional music. "But an artist has to follow the people," he says. "If the people want pop, I have to give them pop." Lema Sahar, 25, is a Pashtun singer from Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. As a woman, she is taking a risk even entering the show. "Music is banned by religion," she says. "But why should I hide it? Singing is in my tradition." As the competition nears its climax, she claims even the Taliban are voting for her - because she is Pashtun. Finally, there is Setara Hussainzada, 22, from Herat, a conservative city in the west. "I believe there is no difference between a woman and a man," she declares. "I am open-minded. I have no fear. I just want to be a famous singer."
Sadly, most Afghans are not so open-minded. Setara, a single woman who lives alone (something that is almost unheard of), has much to fear. Although there is nothing in the Koran prohibiting music, many Islamists disapprove of music and dance as incitements to licentious behaviour.
Already the show has received a warning from the Islamic Council, for "misleading the people".
The performers in Afghan Star, both men and women, hardly move on stage. But in Marking's documentary, you can hear a gasp of horror when Setara starts to dance. It is one of the most disturbing scenes in the film: we see her headscarf slip as she moves - modestly - to the music.
It's so slight, and yet it causes a storm of protest, even among her fellow contestants. "Dancing may be liked overseas, but Afghans don't approve," says Rafi. Others go much further. "She brought shame to the Herati people," says a young man on the streets of her home town. "She deserves to be killed." Fearing for her life, Setara goes into hiding.
I have personal experience of such strong sentiment. In December 2002, just over a year after the fall of the Taliban, I produced a concert in Kabul - mostly traditional music - for the 70th anniversary of the BBC World Service. It was the first big concert for more than a decade and was broadcast live around the world. We wanted a woman singer, but the interior ministry advised us it would be too dangerous. When I returned in 2004 for another concert, a Pashtun singer had just become the first woman, post-Taliban, to sing on Afghan TV.
This time we got our female singer; we even went one step further, with a man and woman duetting.
Although Afghan Star is about pop, the music is very Afghan in character. Most of the songs are indistinguishable from commercial central Asian pop, but the lyrics have a poetic quality, particularly the love songs: "Her eyebrows are like a bow shooting an arrow at me." National unity is another common topic - and there is no Simon Cowell-style humiliation. "They tried it," Marking says, "but the audience hated it."
What's remarkable about Marking's film is not just the stories of these four contestants but the way it captures everyday life in Afghanistan - its street kids, the show's fans, people talking at street stalls. "Afghan Star is better than politics," says one guy in a teahouse. "Politics bring misery".
Afghan Star premieres at the Ritzy, London SW2 (0871 704 2065), on Friday. Details of other showings: afghanstardocumentary.com. The film will be screened on More4 on 7 April.