Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008) dir. Suroosh Alvi, Eddy Moretti
Acrassicauda means 'black scorpion' in latin. It’s also the name of the only heavy metal band in Iraq. Needless to say, heavy metal is frowned upon by the fundamentalist authorities, who see their music as a form of heretical Western propaganda. The filmed journey of filmmakers Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti to find this controversial band allows the audience a unique point of view into the Iraq War.
Alvi and Moretti are a pair of filmmakers from Vice magazine who, via their work with MTV, heard about this heavy metal band from Iraq. The notion of a metal band playing this type of music in the world's hotbed of conflict piqued their interest enough to bring their cameras and film a documentary. What they learn is what we've all known for some time, that after almost 5 years of war, the country is still as oppressed as it was during the Saddam rule.
For heavy metal junkies (like me), the film isn’t about music. In fact the music they play is pretty bad. The band plays mostly cover tunes, and their fan base consists of a handful of headbangers who seem to act more for the camera than the music. So it’s a bit of artistic licence and aggrandizement to call Acrassicauda an actual band. The film is about the effect of the war on the ordinary working people of Iraq – people like you and I who just want to play the music they like, and raise their families in peace.
The most fascinating element has little to do with the original intent of the filmmakers. I was shocked to see the extent of the westernization the ordinary Iraqi people. Bassist Firas Al-Lateef speaks like an ordinary American youth starting every sentence with ‘dude’. He speaks such good colloquial English, there is very little culture to discover in the film. Maybe this feeds the theme of the film – the fact that the world is so interconnected that Lateef, via Western TV and the internet, knows the freedom he was promised and can articulate it with our own words.
Like their contemporaries, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, or Werner Herzog, the filmmakers use themselves as the narrative driving force (actually Alvi is the only one in front of the camera, Moretti is the operator). Unfortunately Alvi lacks the charisma of any of the above to make him a ‘character’ in the film. Sam Dunn, the director of “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey”, didn’t have much screen presence either, but his passion for the music made him interminable watchable. I don’t know if Suroosh even likes heavy metal? He never once discusses their music with the band.
Alvi also isn’t seasoned enough to make subtle his obviously leading questions. He’s constantly fishing for the salacious answers he desires to make compelling drama. And in the end, Alvi and Moretti resort to the most obvious act of forced emotions, when he shows a rough cut the film we're watching to the band members. That’s got to be a first in cinema. Watching the subjects watch their own film!
The film hopscotches through 3 years of the life of the band. And the camera seems to miss the most interesting moments. At one point the band members individually leave Baghdad for Damascus, after which the filmmakers track them down again for more of the same interviews. It would be nice to be present during this traumatic decision and action. As well, in the end, we learn the band broke up and sold their instruments to help pay their rent. Again, this could have been the most dramatic moment in the film, when the musicians literally 'sell out'. All we get is a brief text card before the credits role.
The individuals featured in this documentary are courageous citizens of Iraq – young people who love their country, but because of political decisions out of their control, live under threat of death or persecution. They speak passionately about their country and the lack of freedom which was promised to them by their new government. Their life experience makes all the problems in my existence petty and insignificant by comparison. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t capitalize on missed opportunities and channel this in more cinematically-satisfying ways.
“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films