15.05.2019

‘Rockabul’ is the new film exploring heavy metal in Afghanistan

Words by Anna Rose

A film that set out to change people’s views, RocKabul is a flooring documentary giving a glimpse into the lives of young people in Afghanistan.

It explores the underground party scene where heavy metal band, District Unknown, were ignited by a furious passion to achieve their dreams in the face of Afghanistan capital Kabul’s conservative and fundamentalist society. “Western media only report on a very small slither of the actual situation,” says filmmaker, Travis Beard.

Beard speaks from firsthand experience, having lived in Afghanistan for seven years. It would be three years after his arrival in the country before he would encounter District Unknown in 2009. Their passion for their craft and their perseverance in the face of extreme diversity was plenty of inspiration for Beard to create a documentary.

Combining his journalistic integrity and his experience as a musician, Beard knew exactly where the band was coming from, and knew exactly how best to capture their strife. “As a kid I went through my phase of metal,” he says, “and then I got into photography, and therefore journalism.

“I went to Afghanistan as a journalist, not really expecting to find music – but I found an underground music scene that I got involved in.

“When District Unknown came along, I was playing in punk rock bands, so kind of similar [to them]. What they were asking was stuff that I’d already knew by the book growing up in Melbourne, so it was very easy for me to relay my knowledge across to them.”

The tie between the documentary and the efforts of District Unknown with the ways of punk rock couldn’t be more apt. The film has a very recalcitrant tone to it, an anarchist and rebellious vibe, but with a bittersweet attitude. While there’s ambition and drive and passion in the group, there’s also fear and danger in what they do and where they do it. “The film only has metal in it as a genre of music,” says Beard. “Besides that it’s not about metal.

“When Billy Gould from Faith No More saw the film, I asked him what he thought – he said, ‘It’s doing that punk DIY thing, going against the system trying to make it fucking work’. He said the music was more punk, and I thought that was interesting coming from an actual rock star.

“But the band themselves, they lodged themselves in the genre of metal musically. Ideologically, their path was really something else.”

With no support from anyone but the expat community – for District Unknown, there was no cultural centre where they could learn more or get their peers involved. “It really was the link between us and them that nurtured the journey they had,” says Beard.

Ultimately, the goal for Beard in making this documentary was to both expose a side to Middle Eastern welfare that isn’t seen in mainstream western media, and to explore the uniqueness of this band and what they were doing and where. “The first goal for me was to document the juxtaposition between being a metal band and living in an Islamic republic,” explains Beard.

“Before I started to make the film, I was trying to nourish and expand this very underground scene. You could see the inklings of desire for it to grow and to prosper, but there was no one to show them the way.

For the band themselves, it was a question of Beard tracking them both in times of conflict and peace. “I lived there and I know things aren’t so catastrophic on a daily basis there or in any conflict zone, and I think people don’t understand there’s a lot of downtime between any kind of violence. In that downtime, society functions quite normally.

“They carry on, and so does the band. No matter the threat, no matter the challenge, we’ve got a mission or idea we want to do here and we want to continue that.”

RocKabul is in cinemas nationwide from Thursday May 16. Catch Film Director, Travis Beard, In Conversation on Sunday May 19 at Lido Cinema and Friday May 24 at Thornbury Picture House.