Heavy Metal in Baghdad - DVD (Vice Films/Shock)

This film has caught the attention of audiences world-wide. Having made waves and had standing ovations at several international film festivals, it has just been released on DVD. For far more than just the metal, this is an absolute must-see documentary.



I am a natural skeptic when it comes to documentaries like this. Films about underground metal bands in obscure parts of the world often carry a greater hit-and-miss vibe about them. I'm happy to report that my skepticism was unnecessary because this film is excellent.


Heavy Metal in Baghdad traces the history of what is the only Iraqi metal band to have existed: Acrassicauda. The story goes way back to 2003 to just prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein; Vice Magazine picked up the a story about the band and ran it in 2004. In 2005, they attempted to run a gig for Acrassicauda in Iraq, but the documentary creators were stuck in Lebanon, and the gig almost fell over. I say almost because, perhaps against the odds, it didn't. That show was to be the band's last.


In 2006, a couple of years after Hussein's reign had fallen, and when Iraq was in the grip of insurgencies and violence, the Vice team went back to the middle east to see if the band members were still alive. It is here that the documentary really begins.


The music in this film is all by Acrassicauda, and a lot of it is really very good. Initially a documentary about the band itself, this film quickly expands and evolves into an insightful examination of Iraqi society, both prior to the War on Terror, and 'after' it. It looks at what happens when a society disintegrates, and how something that can be so precious to a group of young men - their music - is destroyed for them by the situation in which they live.


Using the band as a talking point, and an entry into an analysis of what the situation in Iraq has become, and how it affects the youth - wizened beyond their years by worry, tension, stress, and the pain of living with death every day - Heavy Metal in Baghdad becomes an interesting commentary about the interface between music, culture, and freedom. 


Freedom, after all, is not just the freedom from persecution and terror, but also the freedom to personal expression - growing your hair long, growing a huge beard if you want to, banging your head at a show. You can't do these things if you're a metalhead in Iraq, because of the way that society perceives you.


The film tracks band members in Iraq, and as they gradually move away from Iraq. Where, once they move to Damascus, they no longer live with death at their doors every day, they do experience that other agony: of being taken advantage of, as refugees, of having few rights.


While westerners take for granted the fact that they can bang their heads at shows, males can grow long bears and long hair, and so on, you can't do this in the middle east. As this documentary shows us, those elements of metal culture that are visually defining cannot exist in a region that considers metal 'devil music', and that has strict rules about what you must look like if you don't want to get into trouble.


In 2008, Acrassicauda fled Syria - a place that was quickly draining their hopes, and a place in which all Iraqis had been told they would be likely to be deported back to Iraq. They'd sold their instruments, they had no jobs. It was only thanks to the money raised worldwide - not least by metalheads around the world - thanks to awareness raised by the world's media - that they were able to get out of Syria and to Istanbul.


The story about what happened to help them in Turkey is well worth watching: and you can find it on the 45-minute featurette you'll get on the DVD as bonus material. And just recently, in even happier news - though you won't see this on the DVD - the band gained residency in the US.


There is a swag of other extra material on this disc, including expanded scenes that were cut from the original documentary, that, although occasionally repeat material from the DVD, are well worth watching for the snippets that were edited out.


Some people might not get into this film because of its full-on examination of society, or because mouthpiece for the band, bassist Firas, is a very intense sort of character; or even because they are after more about the music and less about the people. 


Aside from the content, the documentary is well shot, nicely edited to build a tight story and the laid-back style of journalism evident in the film is perfectly suited to its  subjects. It is a highly compassionate and occasionally shocking film, and for those of us in the West who rarely see insider footage of Iraq and the culture for civilians in that country, it is absolutely essential viewing.


This documentary is, in every way, an absolute must-see. 


Heavy Metal in Baghdad is out now on Vice Films/Shock.