As difficult it is for most in comparably comfortable, “first-world” countries to comprehend just what life has been like for young people who are stuck in Baghdad, Iraq’s highly unstable, deadly Red Zone ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the mere idea of a group of Iraqis in their 20s playing not only Western music, but the most controversial form of Western music, is absolutely unfathomable. But that’s what the seemingly indestructible, indefatigable metal band Acrassicauda has managed to do, the foursome of guitarist/vocalist Faisal Talal, guitarist Tony Aziz, bassist Firas al-Lateef, and drummer Marwan Mohammed Riyak displaying a level of stubbornness and unmitigated love of their music that puts spoiled kids on the other parts of the globe to shame.
From learning English via Metallica albums, to practicing hidden in a basement bunker that is eventually blown to smithereens by a wayward rocket, to keeping the Saddam-led government off their tails by playing a propaganda-laced original song at one of their rare public performances, to risking their lives playing one last show in a generator-powered hotel ballroom (which, again, is bombed a short while later), their resolve under such horrific circumstances is not only astonishing, but highly endearing.
Filmmakers Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi knew they were onto quite an extraordinary story when they happened upon an article about Acrassicauda several years ago, and after years of correspondence and one daring, extremely dicey trip on the part of the duo, the end result is a brave little documentary that, for all its sloppy, lo-fi charm, is an enthralling peek inside the most dangerous city on Earth, an examination of life as an Iraqi refugee, and a testament to the enormous communal appeal of heavy metal.
As Moretti and Alvi quickly find out, getting into Baghdad is no picnic, their journey rapidly becoming more and more surreal. After sneaking in from neighboring Kurdistan, their plane has to circle the airport, gradually spiraling down towards the runway. All arriving passengers are immediately given bulletproof vests. Rental cars come with guns and bulletproof glass, and the harrowing seven mile drive from the airport to the internationally controlled Green Zone is spent zig-zagging across the road in order to avoid sniper fire.
With the aid of a dozen hired bodyguards (“The best $1500 you’ll ever spend,” according to Alvi), the filmmakers take a guerilla-style approach to their project, meeting the band in clandestine locations, sneaking out into the Red Zone, but it’s not long before the individual personalities of the musicians start to take over the film. Firas the most outgoing, spouts the word “dude” enough times to make it seem he’s from Orange County; Faisal appears nervous as the nightly curfew looms, Marwan’s passion often boils over into pure rage; and quiet, exceptionally talented Tony is just happy to be shredding away on his guitar.
As friendly as the band is, their being the subject of a film makes their situation even graver. Firas openly acknowledging that just being seen talking to Westerners has put his and his bandmates’ life in danger, and it’s not long before they make their way as refugees to Damascus, Syria. Heavy Metal in Baghdad‘s flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants style befits the subject matter greatly as we follow the band’s increasingly improbable journey. Moretti and Alvi are smart enough to not let their gonzo method take over the story, keeping the band clearly in the focal point. Seeing Acrassicauda evolve from an admittedly ordinary band to a surprisingly tight-sounding unit would normally prove to be an uplifting ending, but as the band watches a rough cut of the film in their tiny, cold, windowless apartment in Damascus, forever removed from a city they genuinely love, with no clue as to what the future holds, the grimness of their situation hits them like a ton of bricks, as it does for us, as well.
The extras on the DVD are superb, highlighted by a 45-minute featurette that gives us an update on Acrassicauda’s situation. Filmed in Istanbul, Turkey, where the band has since relocated, it delves deeper into the plight of refugees and the confusing, spirit-crushing red tape one must scratch and claw through in order to qualify for placement. So fascinating is this group of metal brethren, that even when we’re through watching nearly three hours of footage on the DVD, we’re immediately heading for their MySpace page to find out how they’re doing.
They might not be the most talented metal band in the world, but unlike some American musicians who like to boast about how they’d “die for metal”, this is one band that looks us dead in the eye and means it, and for that, they immediately earn the respect of the entire metal community, not to mention casual viewers worldwide.