The Vice empire is no stranger to the world of gonzo journalism. Anyone who has read the magazine or sat through last year’s amazing Vice Guide to Travel should know this. That’s why it’s no surprise to hear Vice founder and Heavy Metal in Baghdad director, Suroosh Alvi, remark that their clandestine journeys into the heart of darkness were “risky, dangerous, and really fucking stupid.” They live for these types of suicide excursions, though, and this was the ultimate trip: roving round the deadliest city on the planet in the name of metal.
Beginning in 2003, around the fall of Saddam Hussein, Alvi and filmmaker Eddy Moretti became obsessed with the escapades of Iraq’s first and “only” metal band, Acrassicauda (Latin for “black scorpion”). For the next three years, every opportunity they were allowed, the duo smuggled themselves into the country, recording every triumph and tragedy the band endured. What transpires is not so much digging up some lost treasure for hipster’s delight (Acrassicauda’s music is amateur at best)—that’s not the point—it’s a portrait of youth survival and reveals the truths of war. In Baghdad, subscribing to the metal subculture is not about rebellion against one?s parents or even the government (or lack thereof). It’s more a hidden rite of passage and perhaps the only viable medium for the members of the group to channel the truly disturbing aggression boiling inside each of them.
“If we didn’t have metal, we’d all be killing machines,” says Waleed, the band’s original lead singer who was forced to flee the country soon after the regime change. Amongst constant power outages, security checkpoints, mortar rounds, flak jackets and general chaos, you’d have to believe him. Practicing heavy metal, we find throughout the film, is a luxury, and actually playing in front of an audience, a logistical nightmare. In the seven years Acrassicauda have been a band, they’ve only played six shows.
Bassist Firis, is the movie’s most central figure, often risking his life to provide the Vice crew with interviews and video footage, but also refusing to stop wearing his Slipknot gear or his goatee in order to conform/camouflage himself to the harsh reality that surrounds him. As he leads the directors through the city, we get a firsthand look at the surreal beauty of Baghdad. Bombed out city blocks, ancient architecture, palm trees and monolithic reminders of before the occupation create a backdrop hard to fathom. It’s scenes like when they return to their destroyed basement sanctuary that are particularly striking.
Of course, if you follow the news every night, you’d know that Heavy Metal in Baghdad is without a happy ending. Though the members of Acrassicauda managed to become refugees in Syria, playing more shows and even recording their first three-song demo, the final scene, shot in Firis’ depressed, one-room apartment covered in Kerrang centerfolds, the group watch the footage recorded thus far. Initially they rejoice, but soon, there are tears, partly because of the harrowing existence they once led and partly because they deeply miss the land where they grew up. While certainly the metal moments provide a bittersweet human drama, it’s the minutiae of the war in Iraq never reported that possess the gravitas to keep watching.