A Familiar Band Story Takes Place In An Utterly Uncompromising Place
Acrassicauda is a fairly typical heavy metal band: four middle-class guys with a bleak outlook on life who find the aggression and release provided by metal to be a rather effective emotional salve. The band has trouble getting gigs. It also has trouble promoting those gigs. And when the shows do happen, they tend to be sparsely attended sausage parties. In fact, Acrassicauda is so similar to most metal bands that they even need to find a new practice space. Unlike most other bands, however, the reason it needs a new rehearsal spot is because its was decimated by a Scud missile.
Being the only heavy metal band in Iraq means that Acrassicauda is actually not all that typical after all. And for that reason, the folks at Vice magazine thought it would be a good idea to profile them. Vice's relationship with the band started with an article written by Gideon Yago that appeared in the January 2004 issue. That article was as much a look-at-the-oddity-in-the-war-zone piece as it was a unique look at life on the ground in post-invasion Iraq. After the article appeared, the idea was hatched to do a short video profile of Acrassicauda, which quickly blossomed into a full-length documentary. Surprisingly, the same Vice people who brought you the "Bands That Suck" and "Anal Sex" issues may have delivered the most enlightening and emotionally resonant documentary about the Iraq war to date.
Filmmakers Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti do an exceptional job at threading together several disparate elements: the unique status of Acrassicauda as Iraqi metalheads, the members' singular devotion to capital-M Metal, the devastation of their homeland, the psychological turmoil the civil war has engendered among everyone in Iraq, and, most notably, the massive refugee crisis spawned by the war, which is largely ignored by the U.S. media. Furthermore, the more subtle implication made by the movie--that Iraq is on the verge of becoming a failed state--is a strong statement that has yet to be fully grasped by either side involved in U.S. political discussion about the war.
What Alvi and Moretti don't do so well is separate themselves from the process. Perhaps this is part and parcel of Vice's generally self-indulgent methodology, but the movie's entire midsection feels devoted to proving how brave and determined Alvi (Vice co-founder and the documentary's narrator) and Moretti (the director) are for forging into Iraq.
Still, with so many movies attempting to put a "human face" on the civilian impact of the Iraq war, the hat trick that Heavy Metal in Baghdad pulls off is notable. By focusing on guys who look (and talk) like the heshers who practice in the basement next door, the movie forces viewers to relate to their struggles in a very real way. We know that Acrassicauda will never open for Metallica--hell, by the end of the documentary's year-plus time span, the band has only played three gigs--but we're not rooting for their success. We're rooting for their survival, not least because these guys are likable, funny, and, like many struggling musicians, a bit delusional. "We're not a political band, we are not System of a Down or anything," drummer Marwan Hussain says, as if anyone would mistake the haphazard riffing of Acrassicauda for the work of stadium-filling professionals. "I don't give a fuck about the news."
These guys, however, are living the news every day, so when guitarist/vocalist Tony Aziz casually philosophizes about the vacuum left by the removal of Saddam Hussein--"They took Ali Baba and they left the 40 thieves."--it's an analysis that's as astute as it is heartbreaking, as hopeless as it is defiant.
Statements like that combine with extensive video footage of the street-level destruction shot by the Vice team to make for a movie that, more than any other well-meaning, agenda-driven documentary, gives viewers a strong, personal sense of the devastation wrought by the war. And, surprisingly enough, it does it in a way that's largely agenda-free--the Vice guys never make any declarative statements about the validity of the Iraqi invasion. They merely point out just how fucked up the country has become, and leave it to drummer Marwan to sum up the feelings of many of his countrymen regarding their newfound freedom. "Fuck this," he says. "Fuck this democracy."