Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a wakeup call for musicians, music fans, and Americans of all kinds who have grown numb to the terrible news coming out of Iraq. There have been so many powerful Iraq documentaries of late (Taxi To the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure, Body of War) that it’s hard to imagine being deeply affected by one more, and even harder to look forward to the experience. However, anyone who loves bands or has ever been in one should consider this film required viewing.
Acrassicauda (Latin for “black scorpion”) is a heavy metal band made up of four friends from Baghdad who love Metallica, Slayer, and the release that comes from rocking out. The folks at Vice magazine became aware of them in 2003 and began to follow the band’s progress, filming them in Baghdad and eventually Syria. Heavy Metal in Baghdad is built from four years of footage of Acrassicauda rehearsing, recording, performing, and simply trying to stay alive in the most dangerous city on Earth.
Narrator / Director Suroosh Alvi takes us on a trip directly into the worst part of Baghdad, a trip that most everyone he talks to thinks is foolhardy at best.
The film crew is surrounded by armed bodyguards and not allowed to step outside anywhere for more than a few minutes. The main interviews are conducted in barricaded hotels and other quasi-safe zones, and even then some segments are cut short by encroaching gunfire and the ever-present curfew. The oppressive heat and the menace of violence are everywhere in this documentary, and it is quickly clear that forming and maintaining a band of any kind here (much less American-style heavy metal) is a heroic, near-impossible feat.
Of course, the guys in Acrassicauda don’t see it that way, nor are they interested in being overtly political with their music. They talk more about the joy of channeling their frustrations into heavy music, and in the scant concert footage available it’s clear that other Iraqis feel the same way – each time they play, the band creates an environment of togetherness and catharsis that hardly exists anymore in American rock clubs.
Drummer Marwan Riyak speculates that without heavy metal, he might pick up a gun, and guitarist Tony Aziz, when asked what he would do if he couldn’t play guitar, can only bring a hand to his face to mime the wiping away of tears.
Politics are of course unavoidable in a movie about war-torn Iraq, but you won’t find repetitions here of any standard media talking points. Bassist Firas Al-Lateef makes a strong case that the Sunni – Shiite conflict in Iraq is mostly a propaganda canard (he is Sunni and his wife is Shiite), and much attention is paid to the serious humanitarian problem of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled the country to take up residence in neighboring Syria.
Once out of the warzone and into relative safety, the lives of Iraqi refugees are arguably worse; jobs are scarce, living conditions are rough, and Iraqis are often treated as little better than slaves, because their employers know they have few options.
“Bands where I come from are spoiled”, Alzi says in one sequence, and after viewing this film its hard not to agree.
I won’t lessen the impact of this movie by describing the various heartbreaking tribulations that Acrassicauda survives during the years encompassed by Heavy Metal in Baghdad, but no music fan who sees it will look at their own problems the same way.
There are many bright spots here, the main one being the power of heavy metal to unite young people and provide a channel of genuine feeling and truth in a corrupt and failing world. Acrassicauda have been through more trouble than possibly any band before them, and they continue to rock on to this very day. The band’s blog (available on the movie’s website) says it more eloquently than anyone else could:
” . . . sometimes it makes you feel like you are cursed for choosing this path and the only gateway is either closed or hard to reach just because who you are or where you from. Every day brings new challenge that you are not up to without your power sources. Your music, your home, your friends and so much more living of the broken hopes and dreams of the day that you will be able to gain all of them back. The only thing you got in your pocket to rely on is your belief. This is the only thing that keeps us all going forward and
not look back. Stay metal,