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Window on the World

Afgan Star

International Education Week offers revealing films about distant lands

World travel is all well and good, if you have the time and the money. For the rest of us, movies can be a substitute exposure to distant parts of the world. So it’s only natural that they should have become an integral part of the University at Buffalo’s annual celebration of International Education Week (IEW). A joint initiative of the U.S. Departments of State and Education, IEW is now celebrated in more than 100 countries worldwide. UB joins in with a week of programs designed to promote international understanding and build support for international educational exchange.

Appropriately, this year’s films focus on countries in the Iranian Plateau and how the people in that volatile region conduct their daily lives.

Son of a Lion

After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, the people of Afghanistan are more than eager for a return to normality. High on the list of everyday freedoms they cherish is music. As ubiquitous as music of all kinds is for us, in Afghanistan it was frowned upon by the Mujahideen and banned outright by the Taliban. So the institution of an “American Idol”-type television show would seem to be a real step forward.

Afghan Star documents the first year of that show, which attracted more than 2000 people to audition. That a somewhat different set of rules is at work is clear when the presence of three female hopefuls is seen as a good sign.

The show is wildly successful—the final episode was watched by one-third of Afghanistan’s population, and it is the first experience of many with democratic-style voting. (Interviews show that, like too many Americans, many Afghanis are more involved with who will win “Afghan Star” than who will win the country’s presidential election.)

And it brings both good and bad into the lives of its finalists. Some of the would-be pop stars find that they can no longer go outside without being mobbed by fans. That problem pales next to that of Satara, a young woman who is nationally condemned and receives death threats to her and her family for letting her hair be exposed and for dancing (though under a definition of Terpsichore that seems to include anything beside simply standing still).

Reminiscent of many excellent Iranian films about young people, Son of a Lion is a drama scripted and filmed in conjunction with the villagers of a town in the northwest frontier of Pakistan. Firsttime filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour is an Australian who visited the area in the 1990s and came to love it. He was motivated to make this movie to protest the stereotype of Pashtun people as terrorists and fundamentalist fanatics. The characters are locals, mostly playing people modeled on themselves.

The story revolves around an 11-year old boy, Niaz, who works in his father’s gun shop. The father, Sher Alam, fought with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. He has come to distrust the entire world outside of his own personal experience, and refuses to let Niaz go to school, even though that was the wish of the boy’s deceased mother. Interested in music and poetry, Niaz is desperate to break away, and turns to his exiled uncle for help.

Son of a Lion tells a simple story with believability and emotional depth. It is most rewarding in its small details of the lives and opinions of the people in this remote area, whose exposure to western culture is limited to movies like Rambo 3 and who have little access to objective information. Highly recommended.

For a complete schedule of IEW’s lectures, demonstrations, workshops and parties, go to

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