ROCKABUL gets 8/10 Rising from the ashes

Directed by Travis Beard
Starring District Unknown (DU)


There’s a fair few music docos out there about those obscure indie bands that rise to cult stardom (Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Dig!). You know, the ones about the trials and tribulations of making it big, slaving day and night for art, maybe some financial trouble, all while trying to do something no one else has done before. But rarely do musicians put their lives on the line just to play the music they love.

For the band District Unknown (DU), this is a reality they faced every day in their home city of Kabul, Afghanistan. The boys, adorned in black with leather, long hair and piercings, look no different to any other hopeful metal head. Over seven years, RocKabul follows the young Pedram (drums), Qasem (bass), Qais (guitar), Lemar and Yousef (vocals), as they start from scratch as Afghanistan’s first heavy metal rock band.

This is the first film by Australian journalist Travis Beard, although he admits he doesn’t know why he started filming the fledgling musicians “because they were terrible”. In true punk style, the instruments and songs are cobbled together in DIY fashion, giving harsh performances to next-to-no-one in lounge rooms. But Beard sees potential and soon enough finds them a mentor in the form of activist “Archie” who teaches them the ins and outs of song production and recording. Through frequent power outages, hostile neighbours, bombings and line-up changes, District Unknown persevere and before you know it they are playing at secret ex-pat parties and enjoying a small success.

Using his influence, Beard sets about securing aid funding, putting together Afghanistan’s first music festival in 35 years. The festival and in particular District Unknown pique the interest of the local TV station, to the initial excitement of the band. But with notoriety comes attention. And with increasing political tension the band start to realise just what it means to be famous, and that it potentially means your life.

Not everybody likes heavy metal, but this isn’t about taste in music. It’s a behind-the-scenes view into an alternative reality where any music that is “western” or non-traditional is frowned upon and forcefully banned.

RocKabul is all about the story. There is no slick production here. It’s simple but clear, low-budget shooting; Beard playing host as well as voyeur as he captures the band’s journey. With producer Brooke Silcox on board, only the most relevant and captivating lines have been included, and like her earlier work, Meal Tickets, the result is a film that is far from one-dimensional.  Nicely, the film retrospectively includes interviews with band members and key associates outside of the film’s timeline to piece together the events, while news reel video and images are used to remind us of the true nature of war.

It was filmed during a period of limited respite during US occupation of Kabul from 2007 to 2013. However, following Barack Obama’s withdrawal of US troops, civil unrest again begins to fester, and public performances, music and hope for a freer life once again fall under shadow, leading to an exodus of both young Afghans and ex-patriots that supported the scene.

Now, just four years on, not one of the band members live in Afghanistan. For both them and Beard, returning is a risk to themselves and their family, so serious are the potential for allegations or convictions against them for playing music.

Consequently, Beard and Silcox have gone to great lengths in the production to remove anything that might give away the identities of locations or persons that could be associated with the band members. The responsibility to protect the families was a high priority, despite the desire to tell all.

The film is careful not to make an overt political statement, instead opting for letting the viewer see Kabul with their own eyes and working it out for themselves. This can be difficult watching at times. The scars of war are always visible in the background, and attacks and disturbing events captured live in graphic detail.

RocKabul is as important as a music doco as it is to tell the story of our modern times and the lives of people affected by recent, and ongoing, war. It’s during these periods that art, science, literature and music seem to suffer the most, leading to a loss of culture and creative thinking.

For a brief period, Beard and District Unknown reminded the world that Afghanistan has something more to offer than what we usually see on the news: “Metal is everywhere and it will live long!”