Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which had its US premiere at SXSW, follows Acrassicauda, Iraq's only (yes, only) heavy metal band, as they try to stay alive and keep making music through the fall of Saddam Hussein and the growing insurgency in the aftermath of the Iraq war. This is the kind of film that makes me tremendously grateful to live in a country where I can freely write about film, or pick up a camera and make one. I can pick up a bass and start a rock band, and I can dress how I like and wear my hair how I like without fear of being shot or arrested.
The members of Acrassicauda, before they moved out of Iraq to Syria and then Turkey, did not have those priveliges. For them, the mere wearing of at Metallica t-shirt, or growing their hair long, or even wearing a goatee, could mark them for harrasment, imprisonment, or death. Filmmakers Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi follow the band from 2003-2006, capturing the band's hopes, dreams, and attempts to keep the band together amidst mortar fire, car bombs, and the ever-growing threat of persecution for embodying Western ideals through their music.
The film is compelling, shot in a verite style that puts the viewer right into the heart of the situation. We're there with the filmmakers as they're pulled over by Iraqi police, who demand they erase previously shot footage. We see the armed bodyguards who they hired to escort around Baghdad when they seek out the band members after the fall of Saddam's regime -- the security company swells the escort to 12 armed men, as they grow increasingly concerned about being able to protect the filmmakers. The irony, of course, is that it's hard to be inconspicuous about your filmmaking when you're traveling in a procession of armored cars and surrounded by guns with automatic weapons everywhere you go.
Most importantly, we get to know the members of the band: Faisal, the lead singer and rhythm guitar player, Marwan, the drummer, Firas, the intelligent, soft-spoken bass player struggling to keep his wife and baby safe in a war zone, and Tony, the incredibly talented lead guitarist. Later in the film, when the filmmakers travel to Damascus, Syria to film the first concert after Acrassicauda's reunion, we also meet Mike, an intelligent, open, 19-year-old Iraqi refugee, aspiring rock guitarist, and fan of the band, who speaks longingly of his desire to have the freedom to travel whereever he wants, as the filmmakers do.
The film could have used some tighter editing, and some of the footage is shaky, but given the conditions under which they were filming, I'll cut them some slack for that. What's more important about this film is the truth that is captured here; the members of Acrassicauda are, in a way, representative of many young Iraqis who just want peace and freedom. This is the face of young Muslims that America needs to see: these are young, intelligent, well-spoken young Iraqis, who know what they want and have been endlessly frustrated in their quest for freedom. They aren't terrorists, they don't build pipe bombs in their spare time, they don't hate Americans, and they love music.
What's particularly heartbreaking is the hope the band members had after the fall of Saddam that they'd finally have the freedom to live their lives and play their music, only to have those hopes toppled in the wake of the bloody insurgency that followed. I'm reading the graphic novel Persepolis right now, and it's eerie how much the current situation in Iraq mirrors what happened in Iran after the Shah was removed from power. In both cases, the people thought the revolution would bring about change and freedom; instead, freedoms have become even more oppressed.
At the time the film's final footage was shot, the band was living in Syria, where they were struggling to survive in a world where, as refugees, they are treated like "less than zeros." Since then, with the help of donations, they've relocated to Turkey, where they continue to struggle to survive, having had repeated visa requests denied. The life of a musician isn't easy, but it's mindblowing to think of what the members of Arassicauda have gone through in their struggles to keep the band together and keep making music in the wake of tremendous hardships.
More than just the story of one group of guys trying to play music, Heavy Metal in Baghdad shows a sliver of the impact the war in Iraq has had on the regular people living there who simply long to have the freedoms we have here. Here's hoping this film will open doors for Arassicauda to release an album in the United States, get visas to come over here, and finally have the freedom to have their voices heard by the world. Their stories are compelling; it's time for the world to hear them.