Judge Adam Arseneau is a symphony of destruction.
"This is risky, it's dangerous. People would say it's really @#$% stupid for us to be doing this…but…you know. Heavy metal rules."
When you think of heavy metal in Baghdad, you inevitably think of something entirely different than Acrassicauda (translated: black scorpion), a band with the unique distinction of being entirely one-of-a-kind. It is, quite possibly, the only Iraqi heavy metal band in existence. Defying convention, religion, and government oppression, the teens armed themselves with amplifiers, guitars, and Metallica and Slayer bootleg cassette tapes and rocked out. Vice Magazine caught wind of them before the invasion of Iraq got messy and sent some reporters to write about their musical experience. Now, a few years later, the band has not been seen or heard from in many months. A small crew ventures into the heart of war-torn Baghdad to find the fate of heavy metal in Baghdad.
Heck of a documentary idea, wouldn't you say? And entirely true to boot.
Life in Iraq for young Iraqis is a surreal experience. Devoid of any political or religious affiliation, being well-educated and worldly, they simply want to make money, listen to good music, and hang out with their friends, and avoid having their torso blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade. Unfortunately for them, world events have seriously conspired against their ever having a normal life, perhaps ever again. After the fall of Saddam, life was expected to improve, but the rapidly growing secular violence, civil wars, and American intervention have rendered the stability of the country into grenade-like fragments. For Iraqi teens, your friend may live fifteen minutes down the road from you, but six months may go by before you see them again, simply because you cannot take the risk of walking the streets unless absolutely necessary. Every time you leave your house, you are in grave danger of being shot, assaulted, kidnapped, arrested, or murdered by either secular soldiers or American soldiers without rhyme or reason, with either group failing to identify you as friend or foe. The overwhelming level of paranoia and fear gripping the city borders on nightmarish.
Imagine under these conditions trying to start up a heavy metal band! In Iraq, metal fans cannot grow long hair in fear of being mistaken for a "bad guy," which could land them on the wrong side of a gun barrel from both American soldiers and militants alike. Guitar amplifiers must be powered with gas generators, since electricity is a fleeting commodity. Your band mates are forced to tote firearms with them at all times to protect themselves on the way to their practice space…until it gets hit with a missile and destroys all the musical equipment (this all happened to Acrassicauda). Now imagine Canadian and American indie-rock hipsters completely out of their element, wearing flak jackets, ducking snipers, and looking terrified, traveling to Baghdad to hang out with teenage metal heads, and you get a sense of how profoundly strange Heavy Metal in Baghdad is.
Created by the annoying folks that brought you Vice Magazine, pretentious hipster magazine extraordinaire, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is surprisingly profound, considering the brain trust behind the camera. As is often the case with a film tackling a issues of gravitas, the subject of the film itself (heavy metal in Baghdad) rapidly gives way to the greater themes and issues, namely, the effect the ongoing conflict in Iraq is having on normal, everyday, well-to-do citizens who want to get up, go to work, pay their bills, start a family with a nice guy or girl, and shred some metal guitar. It is the American Dream minus the pickup truck. Heavy Metal In Baghdad wisely keys into the profound tragedy of millions of Iraqi refugees fleeing their war-torn country, landing in neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan, and being unable to achieve citizenship. Denied of any opportunity, they languish in poverty and obscurity, barely able to support themselves. In many ways, life under the bombs and shrapnel was preferable.
As the film progresses, we learn more about the young musicians, and the steps required for them to survive in a country rapidly disemboweling. They are extremely wary of the camera crew and interviewers who nervously arrive in their country, mics in hand, for reasons too numerous to name. Perhaps most alarmingly, speaking English on the streets immediately identifies you as a foreigner, and Iraqis will run from you in fear, since you are essentially a target for violence, kidnapping, or worse. Snipers lurk from every dark shadow. It is a frighteningly dangerous place to make a movie, and kudos needs to be given to the Vice crew for having the sheer stones to get on a plane and fly there. That's the kind of passport stamp that's going to make a simple border crossing back into the United States into a solid three-day gloved-hand-up-your-rectum experience. Well, better them than me. Lousy hipsters.
Unfortunately, we were only sent a watermarked screener copy of the film, which is not reflective of the final retail product. Our version had a simple stereo presentation and no extras, menus, packaging, or anything else. Audio and video quality were rough, but understandably so, considering the overall low budget, guerrilla-style shooting and cheap hand cameras used to compose the film. The retail copy will no doubt have fancier features—like menus—but alas; we can't comment on this.
Despite the el-cheapo review copy, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a surprisingly introspective look into the heart of war-torn Baghdad from the most unlikely of sources. A stunningly unique viewpoint, mixing heartbreaking politics and pounding heavy metal music, all wrapped up in under 90 minutes. What more could you want from a documentary?
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