Heavy Metal in Baghdad

The Decline of Middle Eastern Civilization

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Still from Heavy Metal in Baghdad, 2007. Courtesy of Vice Films

Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a twitchy, handheld documentary that jets in and out of the lives of some Iraqi metalheads, signals its intentions in the encompassing breadth of its title. The naming is a bit of a fake-out; Video of Some Emblematically Unlucky and Tense Dudes in a War Zone might have been more apt, given the actual material. Unlike, say, Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s 1986 Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which discovered an entire emotional ecology outside a Judas Priest concert, or Penelope Spheeris’s iconic 1981 portrait of the LA punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, Heavy Metal in Baghdad turns out to have little to do with its purported subject. It is not really about Iraq or metal or the war or even Acrassicauda, the band it sets out to document. Instead, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is an almost universalist gloss on what it’s like to be trapped, male, and screwed while possessing a skill that may or may not allow you to play your way to safety. As such it has more in common with the basketball tragedy Hoop Dreams or even Roman Polanski’s WWII drama The Pianist.

A part of the increasingly wide-ranging Vice-magazine empire — the doc was directed by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, one of Vice’s founders — Heavy Metal quick-sketches in electric video tones four postwar years in the lives of “Iraq’s first and only heavy-metal band.” The particular interest of Vice in such a novelty should be obvious to anyone who has read the magazine, founded in Montreal in 1994 as a place where casual extremity and obsessive connoisseurship meet. If you can imagine a Japanese, limited-run, 2Girls1Cup, Nike Dunk sneaker, you likely have a copy or two of the blithely transgressive global magazine somewhere in your home. (I keep mine in the bathroom.) If not being able to imagine such a thing either in aggregate or in part leaves you wracked with anxiety over how lukewarm your taste has become, you are very likely a subscriber.

Vice’s conceits are on display within the film’s first five minutes, and over the course of Heavy Metal we will learn much more about what it means to be a certain kind of transnational North American hipster than about what it means to be an Iraqi metal band. Pakistani-Canadian Alvi, the narrator, seems at peace with being the film’s costar, and he lays his claim to our attentions with laconic bravado while strapping on a flak jacket. Acrassicauda (Latin for “black scorpion,” aka “the most deadly scorpion ever”) may be the ne plus ultra of metal — what could be more metal than headbanging in a postapocalyptic IED-strewn war zone? — but Vice’s intercontinental pursuit of the band over the last several years is meant to position the magazine as the be-all and end-all as well. “A lot of people think it’s risky, dangerous, and really fucking stupid” to fly into a war zone, Alvi announces, as he meets his heavily armed security detail at Baghdad Airport (their faces pixelated to protect their identities). Fucking stupid like a fox, maybe. Almost forty years ago, Chris Burden shot himself in the arm in the name of art, but during the American live tour for MTV’s Jackass (a cultural kissing cousin to Vice), stuntman Steve-O would staple his own scrotum to his inner thigh on the regular for no particular reason beyond ticket sales and what some post-internet subcultures call the LULz: pointless, visceral kicks. (Steve-O dubbed his act, with unexpected tenderness, “The Butterfly.”) Exposing oneself to controlled but genuine physical risk is just a means to an end in the Vice-Jackass continuum. Stepping into the range of sniper fire, as Alvi and Moretti did in order to document the story of a band, has an air of quaint integrity to it. (Like publishing a physical magazine, perhaps, on paper and in ink.)

As for Acrassicauda, one could watch Heavy Metal in Baghdad ten times over and come away with only the passingest sense of the band and its members. The core group is Firas the bassist, Tony the guitarist, and Marwan the drummer. Tony speaks little English but plays guitar like a monster. Firas owns a computer shop and has a wife and a child. Marwan works out his frustrations by banging on his kit as hard as he can. Everything beyond these thin understandings seems to have been shaken off the screen by a series of concussions and aftershocks, the band reduced to an unusual subgenus of wartime displaced.

The primal scene of the band’s introduction to, you know, rock music is never discussed or envisioned, so the film’s only uniquely metal encounter turns out to be an asymmetrical collision between the band and Vice magazine. Better-informed local correspondents will have to evaluate the claim of Acrassicauda’s uniqueness. (Selfstyled “Mesopotamian Black Metal Band” Melechesh have been celebrating Iraq’s premonotheistic heritage since the early 1990s, but that band is based in Jerusalem.) But even if it is true, their track record — six gigs in six years, two of them seemingly staged for the documentary itself — suggest that the band is as much the product of Vice’s desire as its object. The film tracks Vice’s hypostatizing investment in the group, beginning with a magazine article by Gideon Yago, an MTV correspondent in Iraq; the first images of the band derive from a perfunctory interview that seems like footage Yago was unable to pawn off on his usual employer. (“You guys just want to rock,” he exposits, wan and awestruck at the same time.) From there, a good chunk of the film is devoted to the logistics of staging “The Vice/Acrassicauda concert” in Baghdad, followed by an in-depth treatment of Alvi and company’s inevitable difficulties trying to shoot a movie in an active war zone. While overlong, this section features an abundance of footage of vintage Iraq war, Baghdad, and one can imagine, say, video-game makers mining the film for images.

It’s only after Heavy Metal retreats to the relative safety of Syria, where the band have escaped in order to record an album (produced by Vice, of course), that their specific predicament as musicians becomes the focus of the film. Alvi’s narration starts to take on a more contemplative, self-conscious tone, while Acrassicauda break down in tears while watching a rough cut of the doc. At first they’re stoked about how they look, “like a real band and everything,” but then Marwan has an epiphany while staring at the screen: once this shoot is over, the Vice guys get to go home with the footage, while he gets to go back to his shitty, dangerous, perhaps doomed life, his broken country. His anger is explosive (which is to say, rocklike), and Alvi and Moretti want to position this moment as their ultimate comment on Iraq and the war. But you could just as easily imagine them putting an arm around Marwan’s shoulders like — well, like media moguls. “Welcome to the big time, kid,” they might say. “Welcome to showbiz.”