Review of Heavy Metal in Baghdad
Acrassicaduda (Latin for black scorpion) is a heavy metal band in the world’s most “heavy metal city” — Baghdad. After writing about them in US counter culture magazine Vice in 2003, two metal head journos make the ultimate groupie pilgrimage to the world’s most dangerous city to track down the young Iraqis who make up the band.
The filmmakers, Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, introduce us to each member of the band — all young Iraqi men, who speak with terror and a glint of hopelessness in their eyes about the violence that has ripped apart their home city. Firas, the goatee-bearded bass player, speaks candidly of how wearing a slipknot T-shirt or speaking in English on the street is enough to make him a target for snipers. He describes how ordinary people feel “stuck between the Americans and the terrorists” — and as the curfew kicks in at 9pm it is hard to tell whose rockets, sniper fire and machine guns light up the night sky.
But in their bunker-like rehearsal space (the basement of a chemist’s shop) these guys just live for the music they make, jamming for hours and learning their American English drawl from listening to bands like Metalica and Slipknot!
Marwan, the band’s drummer, declares that Acrassicaduda are not a political band but their lyrics, musical style, clothes and attitude all constitute a sub culture — a rebel music — that has always challenged mainstream Iraqi culture. During Saddam’s era the band describe how they were told by a Ba’ath party aparachik in the Ministry of Culture that the only way they could play a gig was if they wrote a song for Saddam. Cue an hilarious clip of a heavy metal ode to “great leader” Saddam, complete with obligatory head banging.
But now Saddam has been toppled, it seems the band’s music has new enemies. “They took Ali Baba and left us the forty thieves”. This is how Firas describes the US occupation and its consequences — trigger happy US troops as well as Shia and Sunni militias trying to carve out their respective world views with AK-47s and bombs.
The band themselves have been threatened by groups who have accused them of devil worship and promoting the infidel American way of life. Head banging has been equated with the motion made by Jewish people during prayers — and so is equally not appreciated by the fundamentalists.
As a timely reminder of the hostility they face, the venue of the band’s last gig in Baghdad is shot at while they prepare for the show. It doesn’t put them off. Acrassicaduda rock on, sending their metal heads fans into a frenzy as they belt out a set of covers and some of their own tunes. One fan describes how the gig is a both a refuge and a release from the world outside.
As the film makers tour Baghdad we see a concussed cityscape where the grand monuments and relics of the Saddam era are partnered by the bombed out shells of buildings and cars — representing another chapter in the life of this once great city.
When the band’s beloved practice space — and their instruments — are reduced to rubble by a bomb, Firas videos the destruction and watches it everyday to keep himself angry.
At this point, like millions of other Iraqis, the band members decide to leave Iraq, and one by one they flee to Syria. Syria has taken 1.2 million Iraq refugees (the US, we are informed, has taken 466). But the life that they lead is hard and basic.
“In Iraq we are zero, here we are below zero” says Marwan. These “heavy metal refugees” can now wear their death metal t-shirts in peace, but working seven days a week for a pittance wage has left them yearning to make music again.
So with the filmmaker’s help they put on a gig to a small but enthusiastic crowd of other Iraqi refugees. Playing again together after a long time we watch the band fill with rapture, all their pain, anger and frustration channelled through their instruments and voices to create a death metal roar that is the perfect soundtrack to their lives.
We leave the band much as we found them — uncertain of their future, pining for their old lives but still dreaming in heavy metal guitar riffs. But as they watch the documentary footage that has been shot about their lives, they become emotional and angry.
Marwan, only 23 but wise beyond his years, looks directly into the camera and speaks out to all of us watching them from the other side of the world. He wants us to know that what we have seen is a glimpse of the real Iraq, the one they have lived through, the one that burns long after we have switched over the channel.
And there is no doubt that this fierce and passionate documentary is a testimony to the fact that although the occupation has near enough destroyed the lives of an entire generation of young Iraqis, it hasn’t quite yet broken their spirit. Rock on.
• Update: the band’s website www.heavymetalinbaghdad.com says the ban are now in Istanbul and have applied to the UNHCR for refugee status. Their money is running out fast.