Heavy Metal In Baghdad

Heavy Metal In Baghdad


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"If you want to know what is the attraction, just take a look around out there. It's a heavy metal world, man!"

It's hard to argue. Imagine yourself as a heavy metal fan in a city which suddenly starts to look like an Iron Maiden album cover. Every night the streets are lit up by explosions. You can get shot just driving your mother home from work, no matter that you've no connection with any military group, no interest in politics. Friends and acquaintances die all the time. You could get shot for wearing your Slipknot t-shirt because you're taken for a Satanist. Growing you hair long would be suicide. And all you want to do is hang out with your friends, work a regular job, enjoy time with your family, enjoy your hobbies and play your music.

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It's 2005. AcrassicaudA (named for the deadliest scorpion in the nearby desert) believe themselves to be Iraq's only heavy metal band. There are others jamming together in twos and threes, part of a substantial underground, but they are the only ones playing gigs. They have been doing so since before the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and they can never imagine giving up their music, even though it's becoming more and more dangerous to perform.

"Was it stupid to come here?" ask Canadian filmmakers Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti, once they've had a little time to take in the enormity of the situation. As foreigners, they face even greater risks, and their security guards are unhappy about letting them go outside their hotel. The band members laugh at them. They appreciate the importance of this kind of journalism but, yeah, they're not sure it was a wise decision.

Suroosh and Eddy work for a heavy metal magazine and want to help AcrassicaudA get the attention they feel their music deserves. Over the course of this fascinating documentary, they follow them through the disintegrating situation in Baghdad until, when it's too dangerous for them to cross the street to see one another, the band opt for exile in Syria. There the sudden shock of freedom brings out frustrations long suppressed, but them men miss their families, are frustrated by the lack of economic opportunities, and find an utter lack of a heavy metal scene. Can they still find a way to play the music they love? And will the nervous Syrian secret police let them, or is there less freedom here than there might first appear to be?

"The introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole state, for styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions," wrote Plato in his Republic. "The new style, gradually gaining a lodgement, quietly insinuates itself into manners and customs, and from it... goes on to attack laws and constitutions, displaying the utmost impudence, until it ends by overturning everything." In other words, whilst the fate of a heavy metal band might seem like small beans in light of what's happening throughout Iraq, it represents something which those with political ambitions understandably regard as a threat. This might make more sense when you consider that 80 percent of all singers have left the country since the start of the war, and proclamations have been issued forbidding any kind of "music-filled parties or singing". This is a cultural war, a war for Iraq's future, and what AcrassicaudA do with their music has far more profound implications.

What really marks this film out from all the other recent documentaries about Iraq is the humanness of it. "I didn't really understand that Baghdad was a city like ours until I saw the bombs falling on it," said an American friend of mine. Most media images concentrate on cultural differences and show us a conflict between Sunni and Shiite which AcrassicaudA's bassist dismisses as "bullshit". These guys could be from any modern city, living perfectly modern, ordinary lives. They're religious but "not all that strict", they're well educated and articulate, and all they want is the chance to get on with their lives without the constant, surreal danger of being killed in what feels distinctly like somebody else's war.

If this film sounds grim, it is very much so in places, inescapably depressing in its subject matter, yet it is also enlivened throughout by the band members' ebullient humour, strong friendship and passion for their music. Although they clearly lack sufficient opportunity to practice, their songs are pretty good and stand up well against other work in the genre, with guitarist Tony Aziz particularly impressive. If I have one criticism of the film, it's that there aren't enough musical sequences, though the practical difficulty of recording those makes it entirely understandable. Had he been born in the west, Aziz would be a superstar. That he struggles just to scrape a living tells us something about what is lost - to everyone - in war.

Reviewed on: 29 May 2008
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Gonzo-style documentary following AcrassicaudA, Iraq's only heavy metal band, through their day to day struggle for freedom.
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Director: Suroosh Alvi, Eddy Moretti

Starring: Firas Al-Lateef, Faisal Talal, Tony Aziz, Marwan Riyak

Year: 2007

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: US, Canada


CFF 2008

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