Heavy metal in Baghdad

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL: This remarkable piece of DIY filmmaking tells the story of Iraq’s first and only metal band.
Heavy metal in Baghdad
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a simple but passionate documentary about Acrassicauda, named after a black scorpion native to the Iraqi desert, and the war-torn nation’s first and so far only metal band. Available in Australia on DVD since March, the film (which screened last week as part of the Melbourne International Art Festival’s youth-oriented ‘Rumpus Room’ program stream) opens with Canadian filmmakers and metal fans Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti having sneaked into Baghdad via Germany and Kurdistan in order to interview the four members of Acrassicauda: Firas on bass, Tony on lead guitar, Marwan on drums, and Faisal on vocals and rhythm guitar. Firas exemplifies the way music can empower the individual; he is a Sunni, his wife is a Shiite. Together they challenge the sectarian violence which has riven Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. Acrassicauda – who managed only three gigs before the invasion – are passionate about their music, and the film is as much about their love for heavy metal as it is about their struggle to survive and thrive in a war-torn nation. “We live in a heavy metal world,” one of them glumly explains as bombs rain down on Baghdad, a city where you can be shot dead by militia groups for wearing a Metallica t-shirt or growing your hair long. Thanks to its narrow focus, the circumstances faced by the band come to exemplify the bigger picture for everyone living in Iraq, as illustrated by a point where Firas and Faisal, who live only 15 minutes away from one another, go six months without seeing each other, so dangerous is it to venture out onto the streets of Baghdad. Consequently, the band opt for voluntary exile in Syria – a situation that’s sadly indicative of the ‘brain drain’ faced by Iraq generally – spurred on by the knowledge that they could well be shot having been seen talking to Westerners, a fact which puts Alvi and Moretti’s decision to document the band’s life in a very different light. Watching Acrassicauda evolve into a tight and original unit brave enough to play a public gig in the midst of a war zone is one of the pleasures of Heavy Metal in Baghdad; but the film’s low-fi, gonzo appeal is enriched by a poignant scene late in the piece, where the band watch a rough cut of the documentary in progress, and the plight of their situation – as exiles from their own land – hits home. Ordinarily I would have been frustrated by one aspect of the film – its use of English subtitles despite the fact that the members of Acrassicauda speak more than passable English – but due to sound problems at the Forum on the night of the screening, this became less of an issue than it otherwise would. The PA appeared to be mixed for the bands who were scheduled to follow the film, which resulted in a muddy, bass-heavy sound, especially towards the stage, although this was less of an issue at the rear of the venue. The screening of Heavy Metal in Baghdad was followed by live performances from Tasmanian metal band Ruins, and San Francisco’s Black Cobra. Not being a metal fan I only stayed for part of Ruins’ set of self-proclaimed “extreme music from extreme Aussies”; but that said, I rather enjoyed their guttural vocals, and the thunderous riffs which were loud enough to massage my internal organs. Heavy Metal in Baghdad Directed by Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti Cinematography by Eddy Moretti Edited by Bernardo Loyola Original music by Acrassicauda MySpace Melbourne International Arts Festival October 9 – 24
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Richard Watts

Wednesday 21 October, 2009

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts