If you think it's impossible to underestimate the cultural significance of American Idol, go see British filmmaker Havana Marking's documentary about its Afghani imitator, a smash hit television show whose musical wannabes run the gamut of Afghanistan's bruising ethnic divisions. The even more socially and geographically heterogeneous audience votes for the winner by cell phone, which holds out the promise of democracy so long denied the Afghanis by the Taliban. Marking follows the finalists around on the last leg of their P.R. campaigns and captures something sweetly goofy, with an edge of creepy, about their aping of smarmy American self-promotion (kissing babies, etc.). It gets a lot creepier as we discover the dangers facing the two women finalists, one of whom has the nerve to wear makeup, let her headscarf slip a little, and venture a timid dance step onstage. The really depressing news is that the vehement knee-jerk opposition to the women's participation comes not just from the Taliban and mullahs but also from young men in jeans and T-shirts who say they seek a more enlightened world and who watch the women's performances all the way through with contempt — and furtive lust — in their eyes. Ella Taylor
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