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Young People Risk Their Lives to Rock Out in Afghanistan in Documentary 'The Forbidden Strings'


Published September 1, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

ROCK ON A band called Arikain takes big risks to perform in Afghanistan in Noori's bittersweet documentary. - COURTESY OF VENERA FILMS
  • Courtesy Of Venera Films
  • ROCK ON A band called Arikain takes big risks to perform in Afghanistan in Noori's bittersweet documentary.

It's a strange time, and perhaps an important time, to watch the 2019 documentary The Forbidden Strings. The world has been watching the Kabul airport turn to a scene of chaos and tragedy as thousands try to escape Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban reconquest of the country. As Carolina A. Miranda pointed out recently in the Los Angeles Times, among those desperate to flee are creative artists "who now find themselves the targets of Taliban orthodoxies that typically proscribe music, the representation of the human figure and the free movement of women."

Shot several years ago in Iran and Afghanistan by director Hasan Noori, The Forbidden Strings depicts a very different (and now vanished) reality for artists, specifically musicians. Its protagonists are young Afghans whose families fled to Iran as part of an earlier wave of refugees. They have a simple goal: to play rock music. For them, Afghanistan offers a freedom they can't find at home: to perform in public.

Watching the 72-minute film, streaming via Vermont International Film Foundation's Virtual Cinema through September 30, is an experience rife with painful historical ironies. But it's also, at times, a joyous one.

The deal

Akbar, Mohammed, Soori and Hakim formed their rock band, Arikain, in 2013. As Afghans living in Tehran, Iran (three were born there), they do manual labor and seize moments to practice in a room they've soundproofed with blankets. Their opportunities for public performance of their music, which requires permits in Iran, are close to nonexistent. Having a female lead singer — Soori — makes things especially dicey.

So the foursome sets its sights on opportunities to perform in its members' motherland, Afghanistan. A friend in Kabul gets them a gig at a music festival in Bamyan Province, presided over by a stunning mountainscape. (Those mountains once held two towering sixth-century Buddha statues, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.) To reach the site, however, Arikain must make a perilous road trip through Taliban-held territory, leaving their passports and other identification behind.

Will you like it?

To watch The Forbidden Strings is to be reminded of the inherent power of documentary filmmaking. The film gives viewers access to a world most Americans will never see: that of a vibrant group of young people who are marginalized in one nation and imperiled in another, yet still determined to follow their passion. A peer and friend of Arikain, director Noori followed the band on its journey, turning off the camera only when he had no other choice, for a pivotal encounter with the Taliban.

While the director's fly-on-the-wall approach is invigorating, viewers may sometimes wish for more context. We see some of the members of Arikain with their families. We see them at their day jobs in carpentry and sewing workshops. But they never speak about their musical style — which seems to mix Western and traditional forms — or their influences.

In Iran, Soori says, "I always feel like a stranger." From this and other hints, we can deduce that Afghan immigrants in Iran are "underrepresented and discriminated [against]," as the film's producer, Afsaneh Salari, told LRM Online in an interview. (Salari, who founded the collective Docmaniacs, took a deep dive into the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran with her own 2020 doc The Silhouettes, still on the festival circuit.)

In short, we may need to do our own research to understand the background and resonance of this story. But that doesn't make its central figures or their quest any less appealing. When Arikain finally perform for a giant outdoor audience, there's a palpable sense of release, a reminder of why people worldwide have associated rock and roll with transgression, liberation and solidarity.

The film's most poignant moment, however, comes at the very end. Without spoiling it, I can say that subsequent history has only made it more emotionally affecting.

The Forbidden Strings is not a story with a Hollywood ending, but it affirms what Hollywood marketers like to call the power of the human spirit. In her interview, Salari summed up the film's message best: "As an immigrant or as a minority, if you have a dream, you can follow it. Maybe it does not take you anywhere ... But it was important that [Arikain] saw their dream come true."

If you like this, try...

Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan (2002; YouTube, or try your local library): Shot just two months after the withdrawal of the Taliban from Kabul, this BBC documentary explores the aftermath of the regime's ban on nearly all forms of music.

Afghan Star (2009; Kanopy, rentable on Apple TV): This Sundance Film Festival-honored documentary follows four contestants on Afghanistan's equivalent of "American Idol," a hit show that emerged after the fall of the Taliban. The performers' stories illustrate cultural and ideological tensions in the country.

No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009; rentable on YouTube, Apple TV and Google Play): Curious about Iran's underground music scene? Bahman Gohbadi's drama, shot without state permission, introduces viewers to a whole range of bands operating under the radar in Tehran.