By Karina Longworth
I don’t care how tired of Iraq documentaries you think you are–you need to see "Heavy Metal in Baghdad." Executive produced by Spike Jonze in conjunction with VBS.tv (the online video venture of VICE Magazine, of which Jonze is creative director), the film tells the story of four years in the life of Acrassicauda, allegedly the first (and probably the only) Iraqi heavy metal band. It’s the first piece of media I’ve seen that potentially has the power to break through “Iraq fatigue” and actually get American kids to care about the decimation of Iraq and the ensuing refugee crisis.
Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti (co-founder of VICE Magazine and head of VICE Films, respectively) had been following the Acrassicauda saga for three years before ever meeting the band members. MTV’s Gideon Yago wrote a story on the band for VICE in 2003, and two years later, the magazine sponsored an Acrassicauda show in war-torn Baghdad. At that point, the situation in Iraq was already so epically bad that between death threats, blackouts and US military red tape, the show almost didn’t happen, and when it did, Alvi and Moretti found themselves locked out in Lebanon. A year later, fully aware that the violence in Baghdad was escalating on a daily basis, the filmmakers embarked on a trip to Iraq, “to see if [the band members] were still alive.” The week they departed, a TIME Magazine cover story on the war ran with the headline, “Life in Hell.”
Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the boys of Acrassicauda were reasonably fun-loving, apolitical kids (in an early scene, the drummer says he changes the channel every time something about the war comes on TV), who were more or less able to eat their metal hearts out–as long as they respected Saddam and steered clear of head-banging, which can be mistaken in the Muslim world for Jewish prayer. But as the war drags on, their real-life circumstances begin to imitate heavy metal mythology: separated from one another by streets full of fire, corpses and (maybe most dangerously) justified paranoia, in five years the band is only able to play six shows. By late 2006, these educated, middle-class twentysomethings are “rock n’ roll refugees,” struggling to hang on to a less-than-zero existence in Syria after literally running for their lives from Baghdad.
In order to get clearance to play a public concert when Saddam Hussein was in power, the group had to agree to write and perform a song saluting the dictator. Acrassicauda complied, with just one, perhaps unintentional gesture of symbolic protest: they performed the song in English. Most of the members of Acrassicauda (with the exception of virtuoso guitarist Tony) speak impeccable English, picked up from careful study of Hollywood movies and Metallica bootlegs. But their passion for the very American genre of metal seems to defy academic theories of cultural globalism. They don’t love metal because it’s American, they love America and speak English because it’s the mass-cultural home and language of metal.
"Heavy Metal in Baghdad" is, in fact, the ultimate pro-American, anti-war movie. The band members are angry that they've been displaced from their homes, that they’ve lost their rehearsal space to a SCUD missile, that they’ve been forcible demoted from normal, financially stable, college-age kids to the lowest rung of the lowest rung of the immigrant ladder. In Syria, in order to afford basement apartments “like three meters underground”, the boys wash dishes for 15 hour days, seven days a week. But throughout it all, they never stop dreaming of breaking into the US metal scene, of touring with Metallica, of earning the adoration of metal fans half a world away. They risk their lives again and again, not only to play music, but to meet with the American VICE camera crews, in a climate in which merely speaking English on the street can get a person killed.
It’s a film in which the people that we went over there ostensibly to liberate show and tell details that demonstrate the complete lack of freedom of a life lived “in between the terrorists and the troops.” It’s not just that the members of Acrassicauda have suffered a severe quality-of-life downgrade; it’s that their lives have become so brutal that they’ve resigned themselves to not caring whether or not they live or die.
Adoption of this kind of intentional apathy becomes necessary to survive life in Baghdad. It’s only when the band watches some of VICE’s footage that they come to understand the price they’ve paid–literally and figuratively, physically, mentally, historically, emotionally, financially. At this point, "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" becomes a story about the birth of political consciousness under the worst possible circumstances. For anyone who changes the channel every time news about the war comes on, it should be required viewing.
We’ll have a lengthy interview with Alvi and Moretti posted on Spout shortly. In the meantime, check out the film’s website, HeavyMetalInBaghdad.com. The members of Acrassicauda are currently in danger of being deported from Syria back to Iraq; Alvi and Moretti told me today that they’re planning to use the website to solicit donations to help the band members find safe haven in a third country, with the ultimate end goal of ending up in the U.S. “We’re not going to rest until they’re opening for Metallica,” Alvi says. They need to raise about $15,000 over the next three weeks to make it happen. If you believe in the cause, go here to help out.