Tuesday, September 23, 2008
It’s true that films about Iraq have been box office poison. Rendition, with Jake Gyllenhaal getting peevish about the torture of prisoners, bombed. In the Valley of Elah, with Paul Haggis forcing Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron to pout and emote, did little better. Stop-Loss, an MTV version of the troubles facing returning American soldiers, was not of interest to veterans or to viewers of MTV, while Lions For Lambs was a lecture from Dame Robert Redford in the self-righteous pomposity of Hollywood’s liberal conscience. That’s to say nothing of Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which is probably the kindest course of action. If you didn’t have Iraq fatigue before seeing it, you would afterwards.
Well, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is different. It is not a triumph of cinematography: there is much hand-held camerawork, and an introductory sequence in which the travails of the filmmakers are given equal weight to the problems of living in Iraq. But the quiet humanity of the story eventually takes hold. This is Iraq, as experienced by ordinary Iraqis, who just happen to be members of the country’s only heavy metal band, Acrassicauda.
Clearly, heavy metal in Baghdad is not the same as heavy metal in Dusseldorf. In Baghdad, wearing a Slipknot t-shirt is an act of bravery, or foolhardiness, depending on your perspective. Acrassicauda can’t grow their hair or cultivate a beard in the style of their hero, Ozzy sideman Zakk Wilde. Bass player Firas has a tentative goatee, but before the end the side-whiskers have grown in, so that he looks more Islamic.
“When we started following the story, people were looting,” Moretti says. “They were going into government buildings and stealing the toilet. Then it went from that to, oh, 150 people got blown up today. Oh, 30 corpses were found with their heads cut off. And as that happened our interest in the band grew, because it was like we had friends over there who were going through this. We thought: are they OK? What are they doing? What can they tell us? And, ultimately, can we visit them?”
By August 2006, when the filmmakers make their way to Baghdad, the city has settled into a state of permanent hell. Moretti and co-director Suroosh Alvi have to smuggle themselves into Iraq via Kurdistan, where they can buy visas and travel on to Baghdad, including a seven mile zigzag drive along the world’s most dangerous road. On arriving in Baghdad, they hire Iraqi security at $1500 a day, which buys a bulletproof SUV, a car without armour, two drivers, two men with guns, and one translator. (Later, when they venture out for some fresh air, the security detail is expanded to 12 shooters.)
There is, no doubt, an element of gonzo thrill in the reporting of these details, but they are the stuff of everyday life to the members of Acrassicauda. Firas has a succinct description of the horrors of post-war Iraq. “They took Ali Baba and left the 40 thieves.” He also says the idea that there is a Jihad fighting against the coalition forces is “bullshit”: “All the people who are dying are Muslims.”
In post-war Iraq, the band – and ordinary Iraqis – are stuck between the troops and the insurgents. But the film reaches back into the pre-war history of the band, to a time when the authorities were suspicious of headbanging because of its gestural similarity to Jewish prayer. “The headbanging itself could take you to jail forever,” Firas says.
Performing under these strictures required some compromises, and Acrassicauda placated the men from the Culture and Media Ministry by penning a loyal song for Saddam called The Youth of Iraq. The lyrics are: “Living in the dark, shining like a spark, living with pride, so we decide, to fight the evil forces/Yeah, we won’t accept it, you’re never gonna lose/Following our leader, Saddam Hussein/We’ll make them fall, we’ll drive them insane.” They justify this as “just a bunch of fucking lies”, citing an Arabic saying: “To stay away from the devil, sing for him.”
“We got this idea from our teacher,” Firas tells me. “He was in a heavy metal band in the ’90s. There was quite a scene in the mid-90s, up to maybe 1998, with bands like Scarecrew, Agony, and Passage.
“The players are still there, but the bands have vanished, because the atmosphere of that time couldn’t help these bands to stay together. The culture ministry was harder in the ’90s. We managed to stay low profile, and it worked. But another band in the ’90s got thrown into jail, just because they were singing heavy metal. The police couldn’t understand what they were singing because it was English, so they thought it was a devilish Satan-worshipping influence. So when the culture ministry requested that we translate all our lyrics, and they said ‘what have you got for Saddam?’ we told them, ‘OK, we got this song’. So we just managed to stay away from trouble.”
Though Accrasicauda claim to be apolitical, their big song, Massacre, mixes a grinding tune with bleak imagery about the slaughter of a generation: “They stole my kids, they stole my house, they stole my flesh, they stole my bones ... one step for victory, one step for death.”
“We sing in English because English is the international language,” Firas says. “If Chinese was the international language, we’d learn Chinese and speak it. We try to deliver this message, which is: we are just like you, no difference. We are just human beings. We have the same ideas. We can do the same things.
“Everything in the world separates people, even sports. But music gathers them together. I can sing in English and play heavy metal, and people who don’t even speak English can understand what I’m saying. That’s the main point. Heavy metal is an international language.”
At first, there is something comic about watching these four men who have learned English from American movies and listening to bootlegs of Slayer and Metallica, put their faith in a form of music with such a dubious reputation. Headbanging was probably not the American neocons’ definition of the kind of freedom they were hoping to export. But eventually the sincerity of Acrassicauda’s vision, and the tragedy of their plight, overcomes their reliance on Spinal Tap slang. When, shortly after saying that he is ready to die, Firas points to the cover of Iron Maiden’s Death on the Road and says “This is what life here looks like,” you can see his point. The cover image shows the grim reaper, riding away from a fiery horizon with a cart full of skulls.
“We chose heavy metal because it’s true,” Firas explains. “It talks about reality: no bullshit. Nothing about boobs or money or drugs or whatever. It’s the facts, the reality.
“This type of music worked as a kind of therapy for us. Playing this music gets your anger out, you can express yourself, tell people what you think, deliver your message.”
And it does take a degree of single-mindedness and obstinacy for them to even try to play. In July 2005, Acrassicauda stage a show in central Baghdad at a hotel ringed with tanks and barbed wire. Their equipment has to be inspected by coalition troops, and the show must end before 7pm, due to the curfew. The band has to persuade the American soldiers at the checkpoint to admit the crowd, and the soundcheck is interrupted by power failures and the sound of mortars exploding outside. “It’s nothing new,” Firas says flatly.
“There’s one guy in the film and he’s sitting in a chair when they lose electricity,” Moretti recalls. “He’s a little bit older than the rest of the fans there. I don’t know his name, or if he’s still alive, and he has that speech where he’s like: ‘I am of the heavy metal music. In the Iraq. I can’t even grow the long hair because they will think I am the bad guy. We need real freedom.’ That always grabs me – the sense of his frustration. It’s like a barometer of how bad this world is.”
It’s a delicate business, using heavy metal as a barometer of freedom, but Moretti just about pulls it off. But the film’s real strength is the way it documents the plight of Acrassicauda after they flee Iraq to become “heavy metal refugees” in Damascus, Syria. There, they play a show and record three songs, but the broader reality of their lives is bleak. As refugees, they are not allowed to work, and are forced to live in the windowless basements of a housing project, as part of a broader Iraqi exodus. The film may not be overtly political, but the statistics it cites are damning enough. In December 2006, there were 1.2m Iraqi refugees in Syria and 750,000 in Jordan. The US had admitted 466.
“I’ll tell you what Iraq fatigue really is,” Moretti says. “It’s a sublimated guilt complex. Or it’s guilt combined with frustration, like: ‘Yeah, I know we fucked up, but you know what, don’t even talk to me about it.’”
After Syria, Acrassicauda fled to Turkey, where they have been living for almost a year, awaiting resettlement, but unable to work, and unable to leave the country. Gibson sent them some guitars, but Firas says that they will now have to sell them just to get by.
“It’s pretty hard to live down here. The expense is like hell. If you can’t work, you can’t make money, so … imagine.”
They have thought about returning to Iraq but their families, who remain in the country, warn them not to. “Plus,” Firas says, “if we went back, now we are known, everybody would just point at us, and that’s enough to get us killed.”
Firas says he likes the film, but that when he watches it, he feels confused.
“It’s more pointing at the refugee question, than the heavy metal story. Sometimes you feel like you are retarded. And everybody just takes pity on you, which we hate. We like to be dealt with as professionals, as a heavy metal group.
“But I like the film. Every time I watch it it’s like closing your eyes and you get all the flashbacks from your memories. So it’s painful to watch it, but also it reminds you of who you are, what you came from, and what you have been through.”
I ask whether he would prefer that Saddam was in power and the war had never happened, and he says the band never cared about politics. “Not before, not now. If Saddam was in power, or somebody else, we would never care. But, in the sense of being able to perform, and having security, limits for everything: that was a good thing. If we wanted something back, it would be safety, and basic needs for the people.”
Talking to Firas, it seems as if he uses heavy metal as a metaphor for his broader aspirations, and as a release from the difficulties of everyday life. His wife and young son are with him in Turkey, which is some comfort. “We are in a safe place. But sometimes I hate that, because he’s grown up with no family, no friends, other than us. No kids to play with, a language he doesn’t understand. I hate when I think about the future and what I can guarantee for him, which is nothing. As a refugee you got no guarantees. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s really painful. I can’t think about the future.”
He sounds more wistful than defiant when she signs off. “As long as we’re playing music we don’t care about anything else,” he says. “Let me play today. Kill me tomorrow.”