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International Documentaries Make Their Mark on West

Three international documentaries premiered recently at the Sundance Film Festival, the most important American venue for independently produced films. The movies, hailed for their artistic value and their political messages, offer western viewers a look into three insular societies.

Promoting equality in Afghanistan through pop culture

After decades of war, pop culture in Afghanistan is spreading like wildfire. A nationally televised song contest, called "Afghan Star," has sparked the trend. The winner gets a record contract and $5,000. That's a lot of money in Afghanistan.

In her documentary - also called Afghan Star - British director Havana Markings says the show has become a platform for social change in a conservative Islamic culture.

"Everybody is equal on the show," Markings says. "Women, men. They have a chance to be on stage, to be treated the same from all ethnic groups. It represents the whole Afghanistan, which is a very rare thing."

Afghan viewers are taking notice. One of the fans spoke on camera: "Now we want a higher level of art and music. Our souls were dead. Now we should wake them up."

Still, the documentary shows Islamists opposing change.

"The rules must be according to morality and [to the] Sharia law," says Fazl Hadi Shinwari, head of Afghanistan's Islamic Council. "If this immorality continues with men and women openly together, this will cause the Islamic people to rise up, and wars would start again."

But in the film, these hardliners appear antiquated next to a more open-minded and technologically savvy younger generation.

A few weeks ago, the movie won the Directors Award at Sundance. Markings was over the moon.

"We really hope that through our film, people understand that the Afghans are like all of us, and they want freedom. They want education and they want peace."

Documenting oppression in Burma up-close

Burma VJ is another documentary that won acclaim at Sundance. Danish director Anders Ostergaard chronicles the revolt in Burma two years ago against the military government there.

He shows how the spike in prices in an impoverished country triggered massive protests. The calls for change were met with bullets.

The video was shot with hand-held cameras. It's blurry and jarring. But it's the real footage, and it fueled uproar in the West.

In Burma VJ, Ostergaard includes footage that has never been seen before.

"A lot of the material which became crucial scenes in the film actually turned up months later in little border villages in Thailand with no label on it."

Ostergaard reconstructs phone conversations between undercover reporters. Their firsthand descriptions and raw video place the viewer in the middle of a bloodbath. Ostergaard hopes the film will renew the world's interest in oppression in Burma.

North Korean refugees share chilling stories

M.C. Heikin's documentary Kimjongilia, about Kim Jong Il's North Korea, is based on testimonials by North Korean refugees. They recount unimaginable horrors, a famine-plagued society where people are too brainwashed or too scared to question the country's brutal regime.

According to the documentary (with drawings made by inmates), 600,000 civilians have lost their lives in concentration camps there.

Shin Dong-Hyuk is one of the victims. He was born in a camp and was condemned to a life of forced labor until he fled.

"There was constant fear," Shin says. "If you didn't work hard enough, you got punished by the guards. They cut your food ration. Sometimes they'd cut it in half. Sometimes they'd make you completely starve."

Heikin says she was devastated when she found out what was going on in North Korea.

"I'm Jewish. I hear concentration camps and concentration camps going on now and children in concentration camps, and I thought, 'Well, this is my way of doing something that would stop a horrible crime.'"

The film stunned critics and fans at Sundance. Like Afghan Star and VJ Burma, Kimjongilia allows viewers to look into the heart of a society walled-off from the world.