What extent are you willing to go to for your dreams? For your beliefs? For your art?
Few of us have ever had to consider those questions so seriously as the members of District Unknown, the members of Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band, and the subjects of Australian journalist Travis Beard’s documentary, RocKabul.
On the surface, Qais, Pedram, Yousef, Qasem and Lemar are your classic metalheads who one day decided to start their own band. Youthful zeal spurs them on as they practice in makeshift studios where amps are mounted on toilets because there’s no extra space, and mice and spiders run free. At the start they kind of suck, and much of their gear is way more expensive than musicians of their skill level need, but with persistence and support, they start to find their style.
The main difference between these guys and the musicians you know? The musicians you know probably don’t have to worry that a public appearance could mean death.
Beard tracks District Unknown‘s rise from a group of friends playing in small apartments to a group whose name is known across Kabul. It’s a great story, but as they ascend, the risks become greater. US forces are slowly leaving the country, and security is at an all time low. What should be exciting moments in the history of the band – an appearance in Rolling Stone, a request for an interview from Afghanistan’s largest TV network – are met with uncertainty. Is it all worth the risk?
Their trepidation is best exemplified when Lemar chooses to leave the country. When Beard asks how he’s feeling about leaving home, his friends, and family, his reply is direct: “I’ll be glad to be alive”.
So what makes the others stay? It’s the desire to change the country. Music may be the medium, but the goal is to inspire a new mentality within Afghani communities. Beard captures that simply and entertainingly, whether it’s during the launch of the first music festival in Afghanistan in 35 years, or when Lemar gets angry at a performance in India because he thinks the others should have made it clearer they were Afghani.
Despite the heavy themes, RocKabul is presented with an optimistic, almost relaxed vibe that only fades away as it enters the third act. The question is posed again: what lengths are District Unknown willing to go to for the sake of their vision? If the Taliban return to fill the power vacuum created in the absence of the US military, they could very well be killed. Their families could be killed. Is it worth it?
The answer is left for the documentary reveal. It’s an answer that highlights just how difficult it is to create change in a country filled with fundamentalism, every day acts of extreme violence, and fear. And for as hard as it is to hear, there’s still some hope.
In The Great Dictator, the Jewish Barber famously announces “and so long as men die, liberty will never perish”. The same goes for heavy metal. No matter what the future holds for Afghanistan, or for District Unknown, there will always be good music to inspire dreams of a better world.
RocKabul screens March 6th as part of ACMI’s Documentary Showcase. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Director Travis Beard and Producer Brooke Silcox.