Heavy Metal in Baghdad purports to be about the only heavy metal band in Iraq, but it is so much more. By concentrating on a ragtag group of average Joes (or average Fulans, to be culturally correct) and their day-to-day struggles in a war-torn country, this riveting documentary opens a rarely seen window on the life of Iraqis.
Over the course of several years, documentary makers Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti check in with Acrassicauda (taken from the Latin word for "black scorpion"), a group of 20-something head-bangers who bill themselves as the only heavy metal band in Iraq. That's no small feat. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, rock 'n' roll acts evidently had to include at least one pro-Saddam song in its repertoire. And the physical act of head-banging was strictly verboten, since it too closely resembles the davening of Jews in prayer.
Heavy metal proves even more challenging in post-Saddam Iraq. In 2005, Alvi and Moretti help Acrassicauda stage a concert at a heavily fortified Baghdad hotel, but power outages and an early curfew dampen the proceedings. It is the last time Acrassicauda performs in its native country.
The filmmakers return to Baghdad the following year and find that bad has spiraled into the unbearable. Residents are off the streets by 5 p.m. Roadside bombs and mortar fire periodically shatter the stillness. The running joke around Baghdad is that the Americans got rid of Ali Baba but left the 40 thieves. Only two members of Acrassicauda remain in Iraq. "Look around," says one of the members. "We are living in a heavy metal world."
Because these amiable metal heads are apolitical and secular, Heavy Metal in Baghdad provides a fascinating -- and perhaps essential -- perspective on what has unfolded in Baghdad. The interviews are engrossing and revelatory, and they reveal the depth of sadness that permeates Iraq. Acrassicauda bass player Firas Al-Lateef notes that no one seems to fear death much anymore. "When you reach this level of being hopeless, it's OK," he explains. Al-Lateef puncutates his remarks with plenty of f-bombs; the band members have learned English from Hollywood movies and bootleg tapes of Metallica and Slayer.
Alvi and Moretti are also compelling travel guides. Donning bulletproof vests and flanked by a $1,500-a-day security entourage, they tour a city marked by lawlessness. Like Acrassicauda, their deadpan observations possess an Everyman aspect. At night, the filmmakers sit on the balcony of their hotel room, smoke cigarettes and watch explosions flash across the darkened city.
Acrassicauda eventually reunites in Syria. The documentary then makes an unexpected but equally absorbing turn by spotlighting the plight of Iraqi refugees in other Arab nations. In Damascus, displaced Iraqis are second-class citizens. The members of Acrassicauda wind up living in cramped, windowless concrete rooms on the outskirts of the city. Heavy Metal in Baghdad notes that an estimated 3,000 Iraqis flee the country every day.
The screener copy provided for review does not represent final product, so it's impossible to judge the picture quality. Shot on high-definition, the picture is servicable, although therer is slight grain, noise and ghosting in several darkly lit scenes. Aspect ratio is 1.78:1.
As is the case with the picture quality, the absence of final product here precludes a fair assessment of the audio track. The Dolby Digital 2.0 is adequate, if unremarkable.
The final product of Heavy Metal in Baghdad apparently includes an epilogue documentary, deleted scenes, some Acrassicauda performances and other goodies. Alas, no extras were included on the screener disc.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is startling and powerful, offering a wholly unique perspective not found in more polemical features regarding the Iraq War. This is an astounding documentary.