Watching Heavy Metal in Baghdad, the immensely satisfying debut documentary from the Brooklyn-based South by Southwest hangover gods at Vice Magazine, you can't help but bang your head a little and maybe even wax nostalgic for metal's golden age, before Riki Rachtman's Headbangers Ball, before Winger and Warrant and Bret Michaels' limp and witless Rock of Love. Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which screens Sept. 4 as part of Route 08: Scion Independent Film Series, ostensibly charts the improbable birth (and eventual diaspora) of Baghdad's one-band heavy metal scene, but it's also a surreal glimpse into the potentially deadly daily grind that faces Iraqi civilians living on the wrong side of the Green Zone's blast-barriers.
The four core members of that band, called Acrassicauda, after a black scorpion native to Iraq, have literally repurposed their lives around the creation of heavy metal music in the middle of the most dangerous city on earth. Practicing in a cramped basement that eventually falls prey to far heavier metals – the Americans' Hellfire missiles and the jihadis' AKs and mortars – Acrassicauda are simultaneously our tour guides through the band's bloody, dusty, dying city and living proof that the more dire the situation, the more it helps to rock the fuck out.
Shot on handheld digital video, which lends the film an anxious, unnerving momentum, Heavy Metal in Baghdad overflows with strangeness. Bassist Firas explains that under Saddam, heavy metal music was tolerated, but the act of headbanging was outlawed because it too closely resembled the Jewish habit of davening – rocking back and forth during prayer. Watching footage shot during a Vice-sponsored concert in 2005 at the journalist-friendly Al-Hamra Hotel, singer Faisal offhandedly notes that most in the mosh-pit chaos "are dead or have gone out of the country or have just disappeared." Then why stay in a free-fire zone? "If we cannot find some fun here, where do we go?" replies another band member. As it turns out, they go to Damascus, Syria, where, with the financial assistance of the Vice crew, they manage to find a recording studio in which to make a rough-but-real demo tape. It's a joyous (and loud) day in an otherwise awful time for the members of Acrassicauda, who are now, officially, refugees. Joyous, that is, until Firas reveals he earlier received a phone call from his mother back in Baghdad: "She told me: 'Never come back. Stay in Syria as long as you can. But you must never come back to Baghdad.'" Their demo is loud, proud, and done, but at the end of the day, denim and leather are never enough to keep bullets at bay.
Route 08: Scion Independent Film Series presents Heavy Metal in Baghdad on Thursday, Sept. 4, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Doors open at 9pm; DJ Mel will perform a live set, and a special guest will be at the post-film Q&A. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP at www.scion.com/route.
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