RocKabul Director Travis Beard

Underground rock in Kabul


AFGHANIC METAL: The story of the emergence of the first Afghan metal band - and the subsequent fall under the weight of an ultra-conservative society.

Gray is a regular film critic in MODERN TIMES.
E-mail: carmengray@gmail.com
Published: August 31, 2019
RocKabul
Director: Travis Beard
(Afghanistan, Australia, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

RocKabul tells the story of the first Afghan metal band, District Unknown. The footage was made by Travis Beard, an Australian photojournalist who became a filmmaker while living in Kabul. He is largely present on the canvas as a key player at the group's birth, when he opens his own house for their first exercises and assumes the role of manager as they take note of their first groping small jobs.

The band mainly plays for foreigners in the bars, gardens and cultural institutions of an exile society that largely exists in a bubble parallel to the normal Afghan community. In a country where music under the Taliban was banned as an activity for infidels, even the simplest form of technical know-how of the budding headbangers is lacking, so it's only natural that they turn to Travis (and his own band, White City) to Soak up some tips.

Western influence

Travis' music buddy Archie takes them under his wing as a mentor. His daytime job as a political adviser reflects a social fabric in which people from the West who followed the back of the 2001 US military invasion unleashed their cultural preferences in the evenings. The undeniably friendly but somewhat paternalistic relationship between Travis and his prosthetics provides the clue to a more self-critical film, but the more complex ambiguities of cultural pressure are nevertheless not explored further. This is an issue that becomes more problematic when it is mentioned that the music festival Travis is at the forefront (the first of more than 35 years in Kabul), is funded by the US government, probably using mild cultural power.

Travis seems more than happy to take credit for the role of grandfather of the small underground scene in Kabul (which towards the end of the film has largely disappeared, as security weakens and the opening for creativity closes). This may be all well and good, but without any exploration of the Afghan cultural heritage from the time before the Taliban regime, a certain arrogant impression is marketed that Western music revitalizes a cultural void from nothing.

We get a sense of a climate that is so marked by insecurity that it
leaving the country you love is considered by many young Afghans
only hope for a future.

RocKabul does not make a deep dive into the collision between Western influence and conservative religious forces in Afghanistan, but the film nevertheless offers a fascinating glimpse into Kabul's daily life. The amateurish recordings and low-quality sound are mixed with a slightly shabby aesthetic that suits the home-made rock taste. And let's not forget the band members. The original cast consists of Pedram and Qasem, two brothers who remember their father playing Metallica for them as children, and consider themselves extraordinary "air guitarists", and their cousins ​​Lemar and Qais. Long-haired, chain-smoking and lavishly cursing, they have an attitude like real rockers long before they master the chosen musical expression. In the midst of the band's changing members (Lemar goes to Turkey to get married; Yosef comes in as a new front man) we get a feeling of a climate so marked by insecurity that leaving the country you love is considered by many young Afghans the only hope for a future, especially a future of freedom of expression.

The dangers of music

District Un-known's music does not seem like much to write home about at first. But it is impossible not to gain respect for the band's courage, considering the risk. A Taliban judge has no qualms about declaring it right to kill those who choose a path of unbelief by playing rock music. When the group has to change rehearsals after a busy neighbor knocked on Travis' door and demanded that they disappear, we know that disapproving eyes are resting on them even before the security situation in Kabul worsens. For fear of consequences, they start playing with masks that cover the entire face so as not to be identified. From the exile environment to the Institut français - the venues are not exactly rock'n'roll - but the risky conditions make up for what the premises lack, especially when intermittent recordings of suicide actions emphasize the dangers.

A highlight for the band is when they get a visa to play at a festival in New Delhi in 2012, and they fly for the first time to meet an audience of a size that is impossible for them to imagine in Kabul. But the most intense sequence takes place at home in Afghanistan, then Travis is pursuing his idea of ​​a festival to be held on a truck level. They drive across the snow-covered Salang Pass to play from the mobile stage in the northern Mazar-e-Sharif city, near the Uzbekistan border. An exclusively male crowd is partly thrilled, partly terrified. Stone throwing causes the police to intervene, and the vocalist Youssef is arrested and detained for a short time.

Back in Kabul, the members of the group go their own way, as the prospects of conservative oppression tower over them and they individually find ways to get abroad. We are left with thoughts of a product of cultural influence that is contradictory perceived as equal parts imported disharmony and hegemony, grassroots expressions and dissident actions.

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