Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi’s powerful yet soft-centred documentary about the Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda creates a fascinating portrait of life in Iraq as seen through the eyes of young metal-heads who struggle not merely to survive in a war zone but to practise their music and get a few gigs organised. The film was born out of an article by MTV reporter Gideon Yago, which featured Acrassicauda, published in Vice Magazine shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Alvi, Vice Magazine co-founder, and Moretti, head of Vice Film, stayed in email contact with the band and eventually embarked on a journey to Baghdad in 2006 to find them, wondering if they were still alive. Due to the difficulties and dangers involved in arranging and shooting the interviews, Heavy Metal in Baghdad unfolds in the form of a low-tech, fragmented video diary narrated by Moretti.
The interviews with the band are interspersed with news-like footage of the night bombings and daily routine on the streets during the early days of the war. We get introduced to four of the original five members as they are just about to play a concert in a maximum security hotel block in Baghdad in the summer of 2005. The situation is intense, and the stories they tell are relentlessly bleak, although far less horrifying than those found in other parts of Iraq. Firas, Tony, Marwan and Faisal are a group of frank and immensely likable boys who have grown up with Metallica and Slayer songs, watching Hollywood films to practise their English. Stuck in the middle between the troops and the terrorists, they have learned to deal with their plight, and heavy metal provides them with both solace and a sense of purpose. It is recreation, ritual and cultural expression even if they can’t grow their hair long or indulge in any head-banging for fear of being denounced as Satan-worshippers.
After receiving death threats from rebels and religious fundamentalists, the band decide to leave Baghdad, but reunite in Damascus where they are able to play a small concert in an internet café. Encouraged by the reaction of the meagre audience and the support they receive from Vice, they eventually manage to record three songs in a studio, which revives their dreams of a great career as musicians with hopes to tour around America with their heavy metal heroes, playing to large crowds and growing long hair.
There is a suitable sense of anger coursing through Heavy Metal in Baghdad as the film depicts their lack of freedom and the circumstances that lead to the band becoming refugees, first in Damascus, and currently in Turkey, and the two filmmakers cannot be accused of shrinking away from uncomfortable material. However, the compelling insights and anecdotes conveyed through the interviews are undermined by Moretti’s annoying and repetitive comments on how extremely dangerous and stupid it was of the two filmmakers to go on this risky mission and travel around Baghdad with a group of hired bodyguards. In spite of this small gripe, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a disturbing and riveting document of Acrassicaudas’s remarkable drive and courage as well as a touching reminder that music can offer a sanctuary to oppressed people.