DVD Review: Heavy Metal in Baghdad
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a documentary about an Iraqi heavy metal band called Acrassicauda (Latin for a deadly black scorpion native to Iraq), following the band in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and through the particularly bloody period of sectarian violence/civil war (pick your terminology) in 2006-07. It was directed by Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti, two guys from Vice magazine, an irreverent Montreal-based publication that does a pretty good job of combining “attitude” with real journalism. So I wasn't sure, going in, what the tone of the movie would be. There's obviously something vaguely absurd about four dudes trying to be a metal band in a place as, shall we say, severely messed up as contemporary Iraq, but the film is a surprisingly straightforward and serious documentary about the effects of war on normal folks. To say Heavy Metal in Baghdad is about an Iraqi metal band is like saying The Godfather is about a mob family; it's technically true, but also a big understatement.
The film was inspired by a Vice article written by former MTV VJ Gideon Yago about Acrassicauda originally published in 2004. It follows four guys – Firas (bass), Tony (lead guitar), Marwan (drums) and Faisal (vocals and rhythm guitar) – who formed a metal band while Saddam Hussein was still in power. Back then it was still pretty tough for them to put on shows without being harassed; Saddam's strict regime wasn't all that friendly to a bunch of dudes throwing up devil horns and playing covers of American metal bands like Metallica and Slayer. But things went from bad to worse after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and in showing Acrassicauda's struggles just to exist as a band (not to mention simply as human beings) in a war zone, Heavy Metal in Baghdad transcends being a documentary about a band. It's about four guys who, as they're all more than happy to tell the filmmakers, couldn't care less about politics or global affairs, but find themselves in what can pretty accurately be described as hell on earth.
As much as Heavy Metal in Baghdad is about Acrassicauda, the band (the filmmakers even helped the guys put on a show in Baghdad’s Al-Fanar Hotel in 2005, but Alvi and Moretti couldn't get to Iraq themselves to see it), it's much more about four intelligent and incredibly nice guys who just want to play their music. One of the film's recurring themes is the notion that these dudes – and by extension, all of the Iraqi people – just want to live normal lives, the kinds of lives that anyone reading this takes for granted. I threw the Heavy Metal in Baghdad DVD in my player, kicked back on my leather couch and watched it all unfold on my plasma screen TV, and less than halfway in, I felt simultaneously incredibly guilty about all of the above, and incredibly fortunate.
Alvi and Moretti basically use the premise of following an Iraqi metal band to examine the effects of war, and as loathe as I am to add my voice to the mainstream-media-bashing chorus (not that I don't think it's deserved, most times, as much as, as a news editor by trade, I guess I'm also part of it), Heavy Metal in Baghdad gave me a look at life on the ground in Iraq that I'd never seen through any traditional Western media. It's a gripping, and at times, heartbreaking, portrayal of the impact of war on everyday people. And considering the American media's glossing over of so many aspects of the war in Iraq (never showing the flag-draped coffins of soldiers or naming the dead, etc.), it's an incredibly eye-opening look at what's actually happening in Iraq. It's one thing to read about bombings every day (part of my day job) and watch politicians discuss troop levels and exit strategies and plans for victory, but it's another to listen to the guys in the band matter-of-factly talk about walking past dead bodies in the street and narrowly surviving bombings and mortar attacks.
One of the most chilling sequences in the movie has Alvi, who narrates and conducts the interviews, chatting with Firas and Faisal outdoors shortly before the curfew, their discussion interrupted by gunfire and explosions getting closer and closer as Faisal gets increasingly anxious to get back home and ends up cutting the interview short. Heavy Metal in Baghdad really hammers home its point about how dangerous a place Baghdad is; it feels like every 10 minutes Alvi and the crew find themselves in some sort of situation that could get them shot or blown up or kidnapped, and I never once doubted it was 100% true. It's the first documentary I've ever seen that’s easily as tense as any thriller or horror movie.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is the best kind of documentary: it made me feel smarter when it was over, like I better understood the world. It also made me sad, as I realized that entire generations of Iraqis have had their lives torn asunder by this war, and their hope for the future is pretty much nil. Even if they try to leave the country, as the guys in Acrassicauda do, their lives don't necessarily improve; the life of an Iraqi refugee living in a place like Syria or Jordan or Turkey is often so bad that many would actually rather return to Iraq and risk death than live as an unwanted refugee elsewhere.
There are lots of documentaries about the war in Iraq, and many of them are excellent. But Heavy Metal in Baghdad is the first I've seen that connected me in something approaching a real way (inasmuch as such a thing is possible watching a documentary) to the plight of everyday Iraqis. Heavy Metal in Baghdad is, simply put, an excellent documentary, and if you're at all interested in a very different perspective on the Iraq war, it comes highly recommended.
The Heavy Metal in Baghdad DVD is a great example of a disc that focuses on quality instead of quantity. Which is not to say there isn't lots of stuff on it, but the idea was clearly to put good stuff on it instead of just lots of stuff. The centerpiece is the 45-minute featurette 'Heavy Metal in Istanbul,' basically a continuation of the film that picks up where the Baghdad leaves off. Alvi and company traveled to Istanbul in January 2008 to check in with the guys in Acrassicauda, living as refugees in Turkey. Where Heavy Metal in Baghdad examined the effects of war on the Iraqi people, 'Heavy Metal in Istanbul' is very much about the plight of Iraqi refugees, although these four also happen to play in a heavy metal band. It really does feel like an extension of the film, and watching Alvi reunite with the guys in the band is like running into old friends.
Also included are nine additional and deleted scenes that don't really add much to the narrative of the film (which probably explains why they weren't included), but they are nice character pieces, highlighting some of the other people the filmmakers encountered during their trip, including some truly moving segments about their Baghdad translator/guide, Ahmed, and a charming 19-year-old Iraqi named Mike, who helps the band (and the crew) find their way around Damascus. There are also three live performances from Acrassicauda included, and the booklet (seriously, not enough DVDs bother with booklets at all, let alone booklets that include worthwhile content) reprints the original 2004 Vice article that inspired the film, 'No War for Heavy Metal,' as well as an interview with the filmmakers and a statement from the band written for the fim's premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. The Heavy Metal in Baghdad disc does a great job of fleshing out the movie. If only all documentary DVDs were this good.
Labels: documentary, DVD review