On the evening of Sunday, April 15 at Cinema la Compagnia, the week-long Middle East Now Film Festival came to a close with awards, a live hip-hop show and a moving documentary.
Shortly after 9 p.m., the last short film of the festival, "Sulukule Mon Amour" by Azra Deniz Okyay, was screened. The film followed two young girls from a crumbling district of Istanbul called Sulukule who find liberation in the art of dance. In the middle of the street or atop ancient buildings, from morning until night, the girls raise torches burning purple smoke while they dance in unison, taking full ownership of their bodies and movements. For them, dance serves as not only a personal escape but as a protest against social conservatism.
After the aesthetically intriguing film, with slow-motion shots of the girls dancing and smoke rising into the air as a beautiful but haunting instrumental song played in the background, the NYU Florence Jury for Best Short Film presented their awards.
The NYU Florence Jury for Best Short Film was a group of students from NYU Florence who viewed each short film in the Focus Syria and Focus Kuwait categories and awarded prizes to their first and second choices. The jury consisted of students Ward Hejazi, Emily Scheele, Manan Pandey and Maya Dayal.
Ward Hejazi and Manan Pandey made the announcements: the runner-up for Best Short Film was awarded to “Captain Diaa,” a film about a boy from Syria who leaves his country behind and emigrates to Italy with his family. The winner of the Best Short Film award by the NYU Jury was “Men’s Barbershop,” a comical and relatable short film by director Mishal Al Hulail. The film, as the jury put it, won for its uniqueness, originality, camerawork, acting and script. The actor of the film, Meqdad Al Kout, accepted the award.
Following these awards was the Middle East Now Award, the award for the best film of the festival as voted by the public. The award was presented to “The Day We Left Aleppo” by director. An actor in the film (name) accepted the award and the director, absent, made a short acceptance speech through a video chat. He thanked the many people who contributed to both the creation of the film and the organization of the festival and thanked the audience for voting for his film. He said he hoped a new, heightened awareness of the current crisis in Syria and the viewing of several firsthand accounts would help people everywhere come together and help to end “the madness.”
Following the awards was a much-anticipated musical performance by director of “Rockabul” Travis Beard and frontman Yusef “Yo Khalifa” Ahmad Shah of Afghanistan-based heavy metal band District Unknown.
Beard, a documentary filmmaker, musician and former journalist, moved from Australia to Afghanistan in 2006. He followed District Unknown for seven years, having first encountered the budding group in 2008, and documented their journey from young, inexperienced musicians to the first successful heavy metal band ever to come out of Afghanistan.
Sunday’s performance consisted of hip-hop instrumentals by Beard, who created beats on an electronic drum set, and vocals by Ahmad Shah, who rapped three different songs. The audience clapped along to his melodic verses, through which he proved his talents extend further than just heavy metal.
After the captivating performance, “Rockabul,” Beard’s documentary, was screened. The film began with the band’s conception, a group of four Afghani boys from Kabul who wanted to make music despite its questionable legality in their country. Cousins Lemar and Qais and brothers Qasem and Pedram fell in love with rock music and playing instruments, and when Beard began to document their lives and effectively manage their band, they began to shift their haphazard instrumentals into true heavy metal rock music. When Ahmad Shah joined the band as the lead singer, the band experienced the height of its fame.
Beard followed the band from performing small gigs in front of just a few people to hosting live shows at parties and underground music events in Afghanistan. They even organized a music festival, Sound Central, aimed at loosening the chokehold the conservative government has on music and the arts and attempted to perform in parts of Afghanistan other than Kabul. Through this, the band faced threats and danger, and the frontman, Ahmad Shah, was even arrested for a period of time, but the group saw music as their purpose and refused to abandon their personal freedom and passion out of fear.
With time, personal growth and the worsening situation in Afghanistan, the members moved to other parts of the world like the U.S., the U.K. and Turkey. After releasing one album and performing at several music festivals, the members now live separate lives, some pursuing degrees and others starting families.
When the film concluded, Beard and Ahmad Shah received at least a five-minute long applause followed by a standing ovation from the crowd. After, Beard and Ahmad Shah encouraged members of the audience to ask questions.
There was a question regarding the current state of Afghanistan; after the French Cultural Center in Kabul was bombed during an arts festival, most, if not all, public arts performances and promotion stopped following the period in which District Unknown thrived, said Beard. He said that the country is in one of the worst periods its ever seen, following the departure of Western military forces. People are too afraid to take part in things like rock music in Afghanistan because radical Islamists believe these art forms are blasphemous and their practice punishable by death, as said one man interviewed in the documentary.
One attendee asked Ahmad Shah if the band was completely broken up or if they would release new music. He responded that they are in a “pause mode,” since they all have different things going on, but that they are still making music as they can send each other recordings electronically and mix and master them on the computer. He said that their first album, Anatomy of a 24 Hour Lifetime, is available on SoundCloud and Spotify, and that soon a second E.P. would be released.
Another audience member asked whether the film is available to view in Afghanistan. Beard responded that this would be counterproductive and would put the band members and other people involved in danger. He said, however, that in Pakistan there is a large market for pirated movies, and that within the next year or so the film would probably be pirated and copied onto a DVD to then be sold in stores in Kabul.
Ahmad Shah stressed that though the band is making a political statement, he and the other members do not make music and share their work simply because they want to tear down the conservative social traditions in Afghanistan. Instead, he said, they make heavy metal music because they love making heavy metal music, and he wants people to be interested in the music because they like it, not simply because they “pity him” because he comes from a “bad country.” Much of the time, he said, he thinks people are only interested because the band comes from Afghanistan. As an artist, he urged everyone who likes the music to focus on the music rather than just the backstory.