When was the last time you went to a concert? When was the last time you bought an album? When was the last time you thought about the ease of accessing music wherever you are?
Now, think about what would happen if you lived a life with no music. What would happen if you couldn’t attend a concert? What would happen if you had no way of expressing yourself musically?
This is the core concept within director Travis Beard’s directorial debut, RocKabul. Based in Afghanistan, and working as a journalist, a volunteer, and as an all round shaker upperer, Beard was approached by a group of guys interested in making music. Not just any music – they wanted to play heavy metal music. To even suggest such a thing sounds like madness. After all, playing music is frowned upon, and with the pressure of daily bombings, and a society that sees no value in the arts, starting a heavy metal band sounds like one of the most dangerous things one could do.
But, it’s also one of the most punk, anarchy inducing acts that one could do.
The resultant band – District Unknown – is made up of Lemar, Qais, Pedram, and Qasem, with vocalist Yousef later stepping in. At first, they sound terrible. When asked about tuning up their instruments, their response is that they didn’t tune them as you only tuned them when you played live. The out of tune, out of sync, rhythm-less noise appears to be a cacophony of sounds occurring at once. Take away the ignorance of how to play an instrument, and you begin to realise the value and necessity for music to exist in society.
After all, music is a universal language. It’s one that anybody can understand. A mournful song sings the same sadness regardless of whether it’s in Russian, Chinese, English, Dari or Pashto. It can break down barriers, it can excite, and most importantly, it can unite. As District Unknown tour around in secret festivals, spreading their music, the faces of the audience members show a level of awe and excitement that is rarely seen. Kids run next to a truck that moments before had music pouring out of it, their hands outstretched towards the band. It’s obvious that the music they’ve experienced changed their life and opened their eyes to a different world.
In a different documentary, the level of input that the director has with helping move the ‘story’ along would raise an eyebrow. Here, it’s obvious that Travis is working as a mentor to the band, helping guide them through the world of music, and in turn, prepare them for live shows. Travis is not there to simply document a story, he’s also in Kabul, Afghanistan, to help bring culture and alternative arts to a world that’s seemingly devoid of culture and arts. The festivals he helps create are rogue, last minute, hush hush events. There’s never a feeling that Travis is guiding the story, but simply using his privilege of being a foreigner to help those less fortunate experience things that their society deems not suitable, and in turn, impossible.
There’s also never a moment where you’re not aware of the possible threats to the band and their families. A successful music festival means a spot on the local TV station. A spot on the local TV station means publicity, and awareness of who the band is, and in turn, making them and their family a possible target. The question of whether making music in a dangerous land is an endeavour worth embarking on is raised continuously. A moment where the band drive past the site of a bombing that occurred earlier that day, with a high body count, really hits home that their lives could be taken at any moment.
RocKabul works hard to ensure that you’re reminded that there is a world that exists in Afghanistan outside the news reports of bombings and war. Travis Beard’s affection for the country shines with the way he interacts with the Afghani’s who have accepted him into their lives. It’s easy to forget that the things that Western civilisation has is there as a luxury. Music, the arts, being able to go to a concert – these are all things which can easily be taken for granted, and RocKabul reminds us what a world without music looks like. It also reminds what joy music can bring to people who have been without it for so long.
It’s stories like this that need to be told – to inspire that change is possible, but to also remind to take care of culture. To nurture, support, and appreciate culture – because it doesn’t take much for culture to be taken away.
If this all sounds devastating and depressing – it’s not. RocKabul‘s characters are entertaining, the music is interesting, the story is engaging – but most importantly, the culture of Afghanistan is one that you’ll be thankful for learning more about. We need more stories like this in the world.
As an aside – it’s worthwhile noting the work of Brooke Tia Silcox who worked with Mat de Koning on Meal Tickets, harnessing ten years of footage into a superb 90 minute flick, and came on board with Travis to transform RocKabul into what it is – a respectful, powerful, entertaining, informative, engaging documentary that kicks ass. The hand of the producer is one that film viewers rarely get to see, yet with the one two punch of Meal Tickets and RocKabul, you can tell that Brooke is a producer you’ll want to keep an eye on as she helps bring these valuable stories to life.
Director: Travis Beard