Film Director Travis Beard Discusses Rockabul, A Movie About Afganistan's First Metal Band
During Inferno Metal Festival Norway 2018, Metalunderground.com’s own Greekbastard interviewed Travis Beard, the director of the documentary, Rockabul. Check out what he had to say about Afghanistan’s first and only heavy metal band and the making of the film.
Greekbastard: In a nutshell, can you tell our readers the basic storyline behind Rockabul?
Travis Beard: Yeah, in a nutshell I was living in Afghanistan working as a journalist. I sort of stumbled on this music scene which is very, very small, but it was growing and one day, four young Afghan teenagers walked into my house and wanted a place to practice playing metal music. I had a practice room so I let them use it and at the same time, this is quite interesting, they’re playing metal in an Islamic republic. So, I just pressed record on my camera. I had no idea what I was doing and this is funny because, you know, it was recording and there we documented the birth, the rise to the peak, and the death of Afghanistan's only metal band, District Unknown.
Greekbastard: Rockabul is currently being screened at different venues around the world. When and how is the movie going to be released for public consumption?
Travis Beard: So we have a one-year festival circuit, which we're doing now and it'll include the U.S. Once it goes public our strategy, or our plan, is to go online. Probably something like Netflix or Amazon or one of these online platforms…you have iTunes and so forth. That's the reason for that because we're really interested in pushing this film as far as possible in regards to it's not so much about making money. You don’t make money on a documentary. And so by putting on one of these online platforms you can get a film, you know, put out across the world and we'll just do one global sale. There is a chance of a theatrical release as well. We're planning to maybe do a later-in-the-year one-day cinema release globally. That would mean that we'd have cinemas all around the world playing the film on one day and then kind of like an event in the sense throughout different countries and different cities.
Greekbastard: How long did it take to make the movie? Was there a time at any point that you felt not going through with it?
Travis Beard: Ah, that's a good question. The film took eight years make and that was directly because of money. I had some money in the start, but when I first started going, I didn't know what I was doing. I was very inexperienced. Um, but I had the subject matter so I just kept filming. Then of course, the money ran out and there was a good five years in between where I kept editing and I kept putting my own money into the film and I kept getting more and different producers and, you know, especially my, uh, my fist on the wall of people’s doors trying to get attention. There was a good five-year lull where I almost threw the towel in a half a dozen, a dozen times. My girlfriend at the time bore the brunt of all my frustrations.
It really got to a point where I thought I didn't have a good story. I thought that something was missing from my film. I questioned my own filmmaking skills and then I was very lucky that I met up with Brooke in Australia and she had some street credibility in regards to the film industry. She got the money for us through the Australian government and we got the money to finish the film.
And so what it proved in the long run was the film did have the capacity and it did have the quality it just needed to be seen by the right people. And now it's doing what it’s doing traveling around the world doing festivals. So yes, the answer is there was many a time when I thought I would never finish this film. I said to all my friends and different colleagues, if the film is not successful, I will never make another one. This will be my first and last film. Unfortunately, it is successful so now I'm going to make another film.
Greekbastard: How helpful were certain governments in the making of this movie and how were they helpful?
Travis Beard: The funding or the support we got from embassies while we were in Afghanistan, they supported the festival that we ran which went for three years and it's part of the film. So in a sense they helped the film, but no embassy really funded the actual production. There was a bit of money from the American government in the first two years. And like I said, I was very inexperienced and that money we spent very quickly. But after that period, there was no other money from governments until the Australian government or what we call Screen Australia, the body that funds films, got involved and helping with us to finish the film. So I mean that was in total those 10 embassies involved in the project but most of that money went towards the running of the festival itself.
Greekbastard: Was there any time that you felt that your life was in danger to the point of shitting your pants?
Travis Beard: Yeah, um, I think my level, my threshold levels of danger a little bit higher than a lot of other people. I've been traveling for 20 years. I spent seven years in Afghanistan. I mean, yes, I did breach myself many a time in Afghanistan, not just doing music, but also doing journalism and other crazy, uh, projects that I did. In regards to the music, there was always an aura or an ambiance of not danger, but more uncertainty. I think this is the word. You always knew it was there and your conscious of it, but at the same time you had to get on the job and when you're running a festival with a dozen to fifteen bands playing and 2000 audience capacity, you don’t really have time to shit your pants. You do have a time to check in with your, uh, security advisors and your intelligence advisors through embassies and you'll even, you'll fix it to get your information on the ground and you check all that information to see whether you can go ahead.
So, there's a lot of calculation involved, but it's still a risky business. And in a sense, that's why the festival had to finish in 2013. We were planning it to go on in 2014 and hopefully another 10 years but because security declined so much, we made an executive decision to stop the festival because we didn't want to have a situation where an audience member or a musician or anyone involved with was killed. That would mar the whole mission statement involved about spreading music and a freedom of expression for the youth. So, we kind of had to pull the plug unfortunately, but I'm happy to say that we finished incident free with that festival.
Greekbastard: How has the reception been during the screenings so far?
Travis Beard: They’ve been very good. I'm happy to say that the, I mean the questions are quite similar no matter what country you go to. Um, but that's kind of ok, because you expect that at film festivals. A lot of people ask me about where the band is now and what they doing? Are they still active? That’s obvious because they have all left the country. We get a lot of questions about how Afghanistan is now in regards to the end of this film which finished in 2015. I tell them the truth because I haven't been back since the film's finish. The scene is dead and Kabul’s social kind of underground…sort of a network, is gone because it's just too risky now to do this sort of lifestyle.
We heard kidnappings are a lot more regular and the NGOs or aid organizations that look after and house the staff and our audience at these concerts now have a very tight security restrictions so they can’t move around as much. They are going more underground to the point where the only music I know that is still happening is hip hop and that’s only because hip hop so easy to produce; you just need a laptop, a sound system and a microphone. That’s great because there’s some young Afghan people doing hip hop, but they have no way to express that music. There’s no platform, there's no stage and there’s no audience. So, they’re uploading their music onto the internet and sharing it that way, but beyond that, there’s nothing else.
So sadly, that’s where it’s at but that's a good thing to show the audience as well because it’s the reality on the ground. We're not trying to disguise the fact that there was this very small window of time about five or six years where things flourished and it was very, um, very vibrant. That's not the case now. I think this is very interesting to the audience to learn, um, these kinds of things and these kinds of shows and what's happened after the film had finished. I mean, of course you can try and make a sequel, but it’s easier to answer questions in a Q & A.
Greekbastard: You recently screened the movie at Inferno Metal Festival in Norway. I saw you in the crowd at the festival, how did you like it and which bands did you enjoy the most?
Travis Beard: OK. So for me, I'm a metal head if you use that definition, but I’m not an extreme metal head and so for me it was big learning curve, which I really enjoyed because I was excited to be there. I knew some of the bands, but I didn't know ninety percent of the bands. To me, it was a festival of exploration and so I purposely asked a lot of people, what should I be listening out for and what bands I should check out. And so for me, I guess the number one act was probably Electric Wizard because I'm a big stoner doom rock fan, but I also really enjoyed Obituary because that was just, you know, a full-frontal kind of metal and I really enjoyed that. On the other side I really liked Napalm Death because I come from a punk background from when I was a teenager and Napalm Death really sits on the edge of sort of metal to punk so I found that really entertaining.
Also, the smaller stage, the John Dee stage was kind of cool because it was a bit more intimate and uh, you can see bands up close. There was one band I saw called Ahab. They're really good and another band, One Head One Tail and that was also really cool. So, I mean there was a myriad of things, I mean the big sort of draws, Satyricon and Emperor and these kinds of bands. Um, dark forest or Dark Funeral from Sweden, whatever it was. They were cool but I'm not really into that sort of big sound, I like it a bit more raw. But overall, I really enjoyed the festival. It was a great place to screen your film, a great place to show a film about metal to a bunch of metal heads; a totally different kind of a vibe and ambiance that you can get at a film festival, a traditional film festival. A lot of people in the audience at Inferno were asking me more practical stuff about how to make music in Afghanistan and just the style and influence these young boys and how they found metal. So that's kind of cool as well because it gives you another perspective rather than just being all that documentary making and the mechanics behind that.
Greekbastard: What was the most inspirational thing you witnessed during your time in Afghanistan?
Travis Beard: Well, there were two actually. So, the first one was we had a women's only day which was on the first festival, in 2013. The idea was that we'd been watching the audience for years and there was probably a segregation in the audience because the women want to sort of be, you know, feeling safe. They would get heckled by the men a lot and the women were obviously the minority and so we watched that and we were like, we need to do something about it because it's just not right. The women don’t have their own say so we organized a women's only day which was female only audience, female only performers and female only press, which meant no male press were allowed to come in. And therefore, there was a day for the women to feel really comfortable and enjoy rock n'roll music, metal, hip hop and all these different genres in a safe and comfortable environment. That was really a triumph for us because, uh, you know, equality and gender equality in Afghanistan. It was really important and we achieved that.
The second one was the last day of the last festival and that was in 2013. We had a band play called Masala Sound System. They were from Poland and they sang in Polish. It was kind of like ethnic world hip hop. There were lots of different instruments and they go up on stage and they sang in Polish. The audience went mental and this is where I…I know that I proved my point that you know, music is a global language because the audience didn't understand Polish and the Polish musicians didn't understand the audience. They had an amazing moment of just musical euphoria and it was just…it was just amazing to see that musicians can connect with an audience in that manner no matter what language.
I should also mention and I shouldn't forget that the first year we did the festival, in 2011, just doing that first year…I think it was probably the most euphoric because we actually pulled it off. There was a lot of skepticism about it. There was a lot of danger involved because it was the first year and as much as it was the smallest of the three festivals, it was quite amazing just because it's never been done before. Well, it hadn't been done since 1975. So, I think in some ways that was probably the best. I mean look every year was amazing just because we got through the year without nothing happening to us. And so it was always quite a pat on the back that, phew! That year is over, now let’s go and do another one!
Greekbastard: We know that the band has relocated throughout the world but in your opinion, how likely do you think that a reunion is in store for District Unknown?
Travis Beard: The band keeps saying that they're still active and they’re together but the reality is they’re not because they’re spread out all over the world. But I always said, “Guys, this film could be your chance.” If this film gets some traction and gets hot, then it might be an opportunity to actually get the band together to reform. That's actually what's happening. We're getting people asking this question, can we get the band back together? And my reply to anyone who asked that question, whether it be a festival, a promoter or whatever, I’d say if you've got the money, I will organize it because I know the band and I know how to get them together. So I think it's very plausible and it's very possible. It's just about finding the right place and time. We have three members in America so that would probably be the easiest place. We have one member in the UK and one member in Australia, so if we just have to fly a guy from UK and a guy from Australia to the States and do that with a sort of North American premiere, I think that'd be very easy to put together. So anybody out there listening who wants to help us then please give me a call!
Greekbastard: What is next on your agenda as far as movie making is concerned?
Travis Beard: So, I was trying to make it a trilogy of films about Afghanistan. Obviously Rockabul was the first one. I'm working on my second film, which is about the ex-pat scene in Kabul intertwined with the Afghan society, intertwined with the war machine that was the western presence, intertwined with the foreign policy of all diplomatic missions to Afghanistan. I'm sort of looking at the level below what you see at Rockabul because Rockabul was really focused on the music and the scene and we do touch on this kind of fabric that is Kabul, but we don't go too deep.
So, the second film I want to go a lot deeper and look at the mechanics of what happens when a country invades or intervenes and sort of the results of that for both the local community and the visiting community which is the ex-pat there so that’s the second film. The third film is sort of more in the conceptual stage at the moment and we're going through the whole country and we're going to look at the history of Afghanistan in regards to people refer to it as the “graveyard of empires.” We’ll go back as far as Alexander the Great, through the Russians, through the British and now the Americans.
Greekbastard: Very nice. Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
Travis Beard: All I want to say is If anyone is curious about this film, I think it's really worth seeing because not only you're going to see metal in an exotic country like Afghanistan, but you’re also going to see a country and a city through the eyes of local people because we lived there. So that’s really interesting. Most of our audiences are just so, uh, amazed and interested at everyday life that they see in Rockabul and that's why we're going to explore more in our next film because you know, the war that is there and it is not every single day. It’s not suicide attacks every day, it's not such mayhem. It’s very sporadic which kind of makes it even harder because you don't know when it's going to happen. There’s a lot of normality that happens in Afghanistan and Kabul particularly because like any other city in the world, it has to keep operating, it has to keep moving. So I think it'd be a lot of kind of surprises for the audience just to see the things are quite normal in a funny way.
RocKabul Trailer 2018 from Combat Comms on Vimeo.
Metal isn't just a type of music, it's a lifestyle for Nikos Mixas. In addition to playing guitar for the Phoenix's own Mosara, he's a contributing writer for V13 and The Sludgelord. And when he's taking a break from it all and on vacation, you can almost be certain he's banging his head at a metal festival somewhere interesting.
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