June 5, 2008 – 5:08pm
By David D’Arcy; a few notes follow.
Why a heavy metal band in Baghdad? “Just look outside,” says Faisal, the rhythm guitarist in Acrassicauda (the latin term for “black scorpion”) as he points to bombed out streets where nobody’s saying “mission accomplished” these days. Heavy Metal in Baghdad [Official Site] tells us that there is only one metal band in Baghdad – or, at least, there was, before the band moved to Damascus. The band members are now in Turkey.
In Baghdad, where the members of the band approach the streets with all the comfort of entering a free-fire zone, this black scorpion – “the most dangerous spider in the desert,” says the bassist, Faris – is just another endangered species.
They can’t play gigs (with a few exceptions that we do see), they can’t grow their hair long or even grow full beards for fear of being singled out as “American-ized” (don’t underestimate how much these young guys are troubled by the restrictions on their personal appearance – what’s a metal-head without hair?), they’re denounced as Satan-worshippers (probably because someone heard the name Black Sabbath thrown around and then saw the goatees that they wear defiantly), and things are getting so bad, when we catch up with them in a Damascus basement at the end of the film, that their families are writing and warning them not to come back to Baghdad.
The screening of the film that I attended at the near-invisible Clearview theater on Broadway and 62d Street, just south of Lincoln Center, had an audience of about 30, and I’m sure that not all of them paid to get in. That’s a shame, not just because yet another documentary seems to be going nowhere with its theatrical release, but because this film, which has been all up and down the festival circuit, deserves a broader audience for its walk into the lives of four would-be heavy metal musicians in country where you would think that nothing coming from their amplifiers could be as threatening as what they encounter when they walk out the door. Let’s hope that it gets that audience on television, which seems to be its next stop.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad unfolds in the form of a video diary, directed by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, with deadpan narration from Moretti. We’ll be seeing more of this approach, since it lends itself to gathering footage whenever it’s available, and it’s a cheap way to shoot. It’s also a way that a journalist on a “legitimate” assignment can gather footage for a film, which is how this documentary began, with an article on the band by an MTV reporter, Gideon Yago, which ran in Vice magazine. Yago also shot crude video footage of the band and introduced us to their peculiar English, learned from films and metal songs, in which “fuck,” “fucking” and “motherfucker” occur a few times in every sentence. Their stories are relentlessly grim, although far less grim than you’ll find elsewhere in Iraq, so you’re thankful for the unintentional humor. If you close your eyes, the four metalheads can sound like obscene versions of Adam Sandler in The Waterboy.
We enter the film in 2006, when the filmmakers Moretti and Alvi are in a Baghdad that’s bristling with guns to visit the guys in Acrassicauda whom Yago filmed back in the “mission accomplished” days of 2003. They’re about to play a gig, which has its own set of frustrations, not least of which is the intermittent electricity. (The band had been practicing using power from gas generators.)
As metal films go, this one has a special niche as testimony to the determination of four apolitical young men and the daily obstacles that they face before and after the US invasion. We see footage from 2002 of an official performance at a nightclub belonging to Saddam’s son Uday, for which Acrassicauda was required to sing a song in support of the dictator, which they agree to do, rather than be punished – “following our leader, Saddam Hussein, we will make them fall, we will drive them insane.” The lyrics are in English, of course. Better for the enemy to be made aware of his fate? Faris says in 2006 that “it’s just a bunch of fucking lies and shit.” Worse compromises were made during Saddam’s tenure.
Metal was already under suspicion in 2002, Faris notes in a twangy Englsih, because head-banging was thought to resemble the nodding motion that Jews make while praying. Heavy Metal as a Zionist plot? No surprise. Saddam blamed everything else on Israel. If being accused of “Fifth Column Zionist” spying weren’t bad enough, before and after the US toppled Saddam, the beards were a red flag for the thought police.
In metal, as everywhere else, it takes more than a beard to make music. Musically, this is not a band that is ever going to revolutionize the metal universe. Most of the musicians are competent, except for the guitarist Tony, who plays wild licks over the crude rhythm section with quiet composure – quiet, in part, because he can’t speak English as well as the others. While derivative, Acrassicauda does play original songs, with lyrics in English. But this is not really a film about music.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is also not the warm-hearted chronicle of a band’s lasting influence and economic failure that we see in the recent profile of the Canadian band Anvil. It’s sadder. The Baghdad boys barely have the chance to practice, either in their home town, or in Damascus, where they work for slave wages and end up in basement rooms in suburban apartment blocks that look a lot like bunkers. Nor is this doc anything like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, in which the multi-millionaire metal princes sit through anguished sessions with a tender soul of a therapist who seems to be modeled on Mr Rogers. Those are the kinds of problems that Acrassicauda would love to have.
“You got the troops and you got the terrorists outside, and we got stuck in the middle,” says one of the band members when Moretti and Alvi visit them in Baghdad in 2006. “I’m like, fuck this democracy,” says another. It’s not an unusual reaction from any young man anywhere who, at this stage in his life, might be expected to hate everything. But these are secular young Iraqis, educated kids from the urban middle class. We never hear whether they are Shiite or Sunni. They don’t say anything nasty about America or Israel. They come from the population that George W Bush wanted to save. These were the guys who were supposed to rebuild the kind of Iraq that the United States sought as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. They are now poster boys for the failure of that gambit.
You barely see an American soldier in Heavy Metal in Baghdad. In a better world, in which Americans and Iraqis actually made an effort to learn about each other’s cultures, and circumstances were such that they didn’t have to risk their lives to do so, Acrassicauda would have fans among the US soldiers. Remember Stuart Wilf, the guitarist in Gunner Palace? Here they don’t risk being seen with Americans and being used for target practice as a consequence.