Heavy metal music might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but imagine living somewhere it was banned. And not just heavy metal - pop, rock, country, R&B, hip hop, almost all the music that you’ve listened to in your life. That’s the situation in Afghanistan, where, at best, most music is frowned upon for religious reasons. From this strange situation comes an unlikely friendship between one Australian and a group of Afghans who want to play heavy metal.
Two brothers and two of their cousins come together in secrecy to form the band District Unknown, their love of playing music far greater than the risk of persecution they face. We watch them grow from 2010 with their first extremely awful rehearsal, through to their first (self-confessed) terrible performance, all the way to them becoming minor international celebrities as they form Afghanistan’s only metal band. Through their successes and struggles, a constant danger lurks - not just for their artistic endeavours, but from the precarious presence of the Taliban.
All of this is captured by Travis Beard, an Australian journalist and musician living in Kabul, and close friend of the band. Through Travis’ perspective, we receive a candid insight into these artists, from the simple joy of playing music to their daily struggles. At times, they’re forced to hide their identities, both in the streets and on stage, and as their profile grows, so too does the danger. But we also see them grow as artists - from those early rehearsals where their self-taught skills are nothing short of painful to their biggest performance in front of thousands in India, it’s an inspiring journey to watch.
The documentary itself is a very personal experience, and is largely shot by Travis alone. As such, there are limitations with the look and style of the film - though that’s absolutely forgivable for a documentary captured by a one-man band in Afghanistan. There are some nicely-shot interview setups, as well as some truly stunning moments of Kabul life. What really makes this documentary work is the candidness from every band member - there’s conflict, love, anxiety, jubilation and, possibly most surprisingly, a lot of swearing. The unhindered honesty that’s on display is the real heart of this story.
Through their successes and struggles, a constant danger lurks - not just for their artistic endeavours, but from the precarious presence of the Taliban.
In a city where a deserted tank is a plaything for children, danger is everywhere and happiness is scarce. The ability for District Unknown to have brought elation to not only its band members but younger generations of Afghanis is revelatory. Though there’s nothing flashy about this documentary, it’s the fascinating story of a collection of people slowly changing minds through the power of creativity.