“Each one of us would turn into killing machines,” says Marwan Reyad, drummer of Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda. He's explaining the plight of not only himself, but also of his bandmates: without the music most of us take for granted, Marwan could very well be a wandering insurgent with every intention of destroying those who have destroyed his family and culture. His reliance on the drums to vent his frustrations and fears in the midst of a carved-out nation bleed into his thoughts and his words — he's not mincing his words, nor should he. Truth is, Marwan and his bandmates aren't full or hate and don't despise America. They worship at the idol of Metallica and Slayer, wanting nothing more than the freedom to grow their hair long, headbang without the threat of imprisonment (or worse), and play heavy metal to a group of young Iraqis who, just like themselves, are in love with the same sounds many of us cranked in our youth.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad follows Acrassicauda in their journey to play heavy metal in a nation drenched in destruction. Unlike the wealth of documentaries, dramatizations, and biopics piling up due to the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq, directors Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti try their best to ignore politics, showcasing a band simply fighting to survive. Doing so puts the band and their documenters in danger at every turn from the confused citizens coping with Iraq’s deterioration at the hands of a foreign occupier and native sons.
The film begins jovially, even amidst the backdrop of a crumbling Baghdad. Acrassicauda struggle to set up for show — power outages and miscommunication between the band and American peacekeepers hamper progress, but the band perseveres and the fans show up ready to enjoy the headbanging fury. For a moment, the rubble and chaos outside is drowned out by the riffage. Acrassicauda pledge allegiance not to Iraq, but to heavy metal. A year later, however, the band plays again, but sadly it's not in Baghdad. Alvi and Moretti catch up with the reunited band in Damascus, Syria after seeking safety from Iraq. We find out that in Syria, Iraqi refugees are seen as bottom feeders, forced to take whatever job they can get under the table.
The trials Acrassicauda suffer there mirror the lives of illegal immigrants in America: far away from home and family, working for very little in poor conditions, with little hope of making ends meet. But Acrassicauda are sympathetic people; we’ve seen their inner tug-of-war and, at this point in the film, have become their friends -- we have a rooting interest in their well-being, no matter their stock in life. Indeed, Alvi and Moretti have made us all subjects of the film without the use of smoke and mirrors. Marwan’s frankness is our frankness; Firsa’s guarded optimism is our optimism; Tony’s strength is our strength; Waleed’s fear is our fear.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad evokes plenty of emotions visited by other films documenting the horrors of Iraq, but the film isn’t an exposé on torture or propaganda about sectarian violence. It's heart-wrenching, because the four men of Acrassicauda are just like any young men in any nation. Using handheld cameras to capture the rawness of a band in a struggle between its dream to play metal and its need to leave home, Alvi and Moretti show Marwan, Tony, Firas, and Waleed as human beings, not as would-be terrorists or charity cases. Interestingly, Alvi and Moretti become part of the film themselves, investing energy, money, and care into helping Acrassicauda as much as possible.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad isn’t just about heavy metal in Baghdad. It’s also about losing your home and hoping to one day get it back. It’s about sacrificing everything you know to do what you love. Acrassicauda lost their instruments, practice space, families, and country to war, and yet they press on, all in the name of heavy metal. The desire to do something more is at the core of Alvi and Moretti’s film, and they let it speak for itself with no filters. In the film’s climax, Acrassicauda watch as their story unfolds — their excitement turns into anguish and finally into anger. It's a do-or-die situation unfolding before everyone’s eyes, made only more devastating by the fact that Heavy Metal in Baghdad is based on real-life situations, not a script.