By Sonya Rehman
Strapping on bullet-proof vests, amidst a platoon of armed men – directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi are ready to embark on a risky expedition right in the heart of war-torn and ravaged Baghdad to meet a band.
But not just any old band, rather, Iraq’s sole Heavy Metal band – ‘Acrassicauda’, Latin for ‘black scorpion’.
Having premiered at the ‘Toronto International Film Festival’ in 2007, the ‘Berlin International Film Festival’ in February 2008, and more recently, the ‘SXSW Film Festival’ (held in Austin, Texas) this year in March – ‘Heavy Metal in Baghdad’ is a one-of-a-kind ‘rockumentary’ that truly makes an impact – throughout its 85-minute footage – from start to finish.
“We first heard about Acrassicauda through our friend Gideon Yago”, Suroosh states, “he’d been doing some reporting in Baghdad for MTV News in 2003 after Saddam’s regime had been toppled. After he got back he told us about them. The mere idea that a heavy metal band was playing in Baghdad in those circumstances seemed incomprehensible to us, so we decided to investigate.”
And investigate they did. Following the band’s tumultuous journey over a span of three years, in a country pregnant with fear, its jaded skies etched with missiles, and buildings riddled with brutal bullets and grenades…Baghdad, Iraq, no matter how crippled is still considered ‘home’ to Faisal Talal (vocalist), Tony Aziz (lead guitarist), Firas Al-Lateef (bassist) and Marwan Reyad (drummer extraordinaire) – Acrassicauda’s tight-knit line-up of musicians.
Considering the dangers involved in filming a relatively political documentary in Iraq, were the directors scared of being shot at, and/or kidnapped? Was the ‘fear’ constant throughout the filming process?
“Filming in Iraq was hard”, agrees Suroosh, “we had no real mobility, nor were we able to walk the streets freely. The situation in Baghdad was the worst it had been since the Coalition troops started the occupation. There were virtually no other journalists there at the time, and westerners were being targeted constantly, so we were at the mercy and care of our bodyguards, who we credit with getting us out of there safely. I was scared of roadside bombs and of being kidnapped, but by the end of the week, as Eddy says, ‘we got comfortable with the feeling of uncomfortability.'”
In the documentary while jamming at a gig held in Al-Fanar hotel (in Baghdad) with over one hundred Iraqi men head-banging, a young man in the audience faces the camera and says (in a thick Iraqi accent): “We are of the heavy metal music. We are in the Iraq. Nobody here can grow long hair you know? Because they will think we are the bad guys. So we need REAL freedom”. Soon after, Faisal begins belting out ‘Massacre’ – a fierce, angst-ridden, Acrassicauda metal number.
Sings Faisal emotively, as beads of sweat cling to his forehead: “They stole my lands/ They stole my home/ They stole my flesh/ They stole my bones”.
“You got the troops and you got the terrorists outside…and we are stuck in the middle”, Acrassicauda’s drummer, Marwan, enunciates in the documentary. He says it in a tone caught between sarcasm and vulnerable acceptance.
Perhaps the most painful part in the documentary comes when the band’s jamming sanctuary (a tiny room in a building situated in downtown Baghdad) gets blown to pieces by a stray missile.
The reactions are intense. Teary-eyed, choked up, grim and clenching teeth, Firas, Faisal and Marwan appear emotionally crippled as they sit in their humble room (in a housing complex for Iraqi refugees) while watching a clip Firas recorded (of the ruptured building) on his handy-cam.
Having had to flee Iraq to Syria (four months after the stray missile hit), and much later on to Turkey, Acrassicauda is a band literally living on the edge – yet courageous and resilient enough to keep trying to piece together the fragments of a life-long dream…to play music without being persecuted and living under constant threat – whether physically, emotionally or monetarily.
Says Suroosh: “From the first moment that we made contact and met them, their struggle started to affect us on a personal level. Their story was so compelling that it pushed us to chase it harder than anything we’ve chased before, but once we met them and saw the hell they were living through it made us so grateful for the things that we take for granted everyday: the freedom to express ourselves freely without the fear of persecution and death, living in a free and open society, to be able to travel anywhere we want at anytime. Whether they are in Baghdad, Damascus, or Istanbul, there have always been insanely large obstacles in front of them. The latest predicament of being in the UNHCR refugee system is yet a whole new set of challenges for them.”
Currently residing in Istanbul, Acrassicauda “live dual lives”, expresses Suroosh, “on the one hand they’re dealing with the typical trials and tribulations of being refugees in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and have no money, and at the same time they’re in an open and relatively free society and modern society for the first time in their lives. They’re part of a musical community for the first time in their lives and they’re like any other struggling group of musicians, except that they’ve lived through three wars and are refugees. They still have a long road ahead of them.”
‘Heavy Metal in Baghdad’ brings to light so many things all at once, but what really stands out is this: that the real heroes of war are, at the end of the day, ordinary individuals that most of us tend to overlook.
All soldiers of war limping down broken paths, don’t always carry guns, bullet-proof vests and helmets…but rather, empty pockets, worn-out souls, yet resilient hearts…and even, broken dreams of heavy metal.