How Would 'Idol' Do in Afghanistan? New HBO Doc Shows Us

A lot about HBO's documentary Afghan Star feels familiar. In one scene from the award-winning film (which premieres tonight, at 9 p.m. ET), a contestant on a televised, American Idol-like competition is riding in a car. Except that in war-torn Afghanistan, nonchalance about safety isn't an option, especially if you're in the public eye.

The contestant Setara answers her phonne, "Hello?"

"We heard you've been killed."

"No. I'm not dead."

For this 21-year-old aspiring singer, performing is tantamount to criminal behavior, and has led to death threats. Though the nation no longer bans music outright (as it did from 1996 to 2001), entrenched Taliban still consider music sacrilegious, as do the country's powerful rebel fighters, the Mujahideen. And Afghan Idol's voting system -- which offers citizens a glimpse of democracy at work -- hasn't gone down well with warlords, either.

Most controversial in Afghanistan is the show's inclusion of female contestants. The documentary follows four Afghan Star finalists, two of whom are women. What do viewers think? "A lady shouldn't be liberal like Setara," says one tribal elder who's interviewed. "She moved on stage. I cannot watch it. She's a flirtatious girl. She should be killed." Later, a much younger man echoes the sentiment: "She deserves to die."

Because she moved on stage? Yes, that's what the man said. There's less pressure on male contestants, but they aren't exactly cruising around like their American counterparts, signing autographs, either.

"There are security problems when you become famous," says the 19-year-old Rafi, a doe-eyed pretty boy who lands in the Top Two. While riding in a car, he explains to the filmmaker that he has to cut the interview short. "You have to be careful," he says. "There is fierce rivalry in this competition, and something bad could happen." After he departs, his driver adds, "These days, for every friend you have 100 enemies."

As the camera pans a line of contestants waiting for their audition, a young Afghani says, "Our aim is to take peoples' hands from weapons to music." One producer points out that 60% of Afghanis are under age 21, but they're an overlooked group. No one's talking about them -- until now.

For now, the media attention will continue. HBO has commissioned a follow-up film about Setara, presumably about life after the show. How safe will she be from extremists? If only her fans could guarantee her safety.

PHOTOS: Idol Champs vs. Runners-Up: Who's the Bigger Winner?

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