ROCKABUL. Lemar Saifullah, Qais Shaqasi, Qasem Foushanji, Pedram Foushanji, Yusef Shah, Travis Beard. Directed by Travis Beard. 93 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).
‘RocKabul’ takes viewers inside the formation and trajectory of Afghanistan’s first metal band, District Unknown. Shot by Travis Beard, an Australian journalist and amateur musician who had spent seven-plus years living in Afghanistan, this is an impressive, fearless documentary, providing candid insights into an aspect of contemporary Afghan culture that has long been hidden from the spotlight.
Rock music, particularly District Unknown’s brand of loud “progressive metal”, is considered haram (or unlawful) by conservative Muslims in Afghanistan. A Taliban judge identified only as “Haqmal” states to the camera that, if you listen to this genre, “flames will come out of your ears on Judgement Day”. He continues: “it is permitted to kill people who choose this path”. With this judgment hanging over the film, there’s a genuine sense of danger permeating everything Beard captures, a danger that materialises with real repercussions on multiple occasions.
In their first practice session, hosted by Beard in a spare room in his home, District Unknown are painfully mediocre. They’ve never had a chance to play together properly, let alone on genuine instruments – their drummer Pedram learned to play on the “air drums”, inspired by listening to his father’s Metallica records as a child. The other members are equally inexperienced: Pedram’s brother Qasem is the group’s bassist, while guitar playing duties fall to cousins Lemar and Qais, with the former also taking on vocals. Their initial lack of skill is compounded by the everyday realities of living and trying to play loud music in Kabul – their electricity supply cuts out without warning, while a community member of influence stops by, simply telling them that they “have to leave”.
However, with the support of Beard and the musical mentorship of one of his contacts, Archie, District Unknown improve markedly over the ensuing months, gaining in confidence and talent until they’re assuredly performing to bustling crowds at Expat guesthouses in Kabul. Shot over several years, ‘RocKabul’ captures several milestones for the group, from their first interest from the Western media (an article in Rolling Stone magazine) to their first headline slot (topping Sound Central, Afghanistan’s first music festival in 35 years organised by Beard and funded by the American Embassy). Beard captures everything in a raw, handheld way, an approach both lending sincerity to and given credibility by the natural, honest rapport that he develops with each of the young band members.
However, even if their style of music isn’t to your taste (and the odds suggest that this will be the case for many readers), the coming-of-age and religious aspects of ‘RocKabul’ produce a universal story of finding your voice, both musically and politically. Despite the changing membership of the group, with new vocalist Yousef replacing Lemar when the latter moves to Turkey to get married, the band’s journey maintains a satisfying upward trajectory. Their blending of Afghani and Western influences, as well as their frank confrontation of the constant fear of death living in Kabul, wins them global fans. At its core though, this film is about giving the youth of Afghanistan, even if it’s just a small sample thereof, a voice. It’s being heard around the world just gives their story its well-deserved happy ending.
The making of this documentary unquestionably put the members of District Unknown and the filmmakers in genuine jeopardy. The courage alone that the finished film represents is nothing short of inspiring. The fact this it’s a good story, solidly told and capable of moments of fascinating insight into the lives of Afghani youths, is just a welcome bonus.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 16.