(Note: Yes, I am that cheesy and unsubtle. The title of this post is indeed a reference to the Frank Capra-directed World War II propaganda film series, Why We Fight. The movies in this series are in the public domain, viewable on the internet, and well worth watching.)
It was pure coincidence, a choice among a plethora of Memorial Day weekend movie choices, 100% political-agenda-free, that led Lloyd and me to see Heavy Metal in Baghdad on Memorial Day. In hindsight, though—and I know I will probably make more than a few people unhappy when I say this—I find it a perfectly appropriate, if heartbreaking, way to honor our fallen troops in Iraq, as well as to acknowledge the terrible, terrible price Iraqi civilians have paid over the past five years. At first glance, it might seem frivolous to think about the war in the context of a documentary about Iraq’s only heavy metal band, Acrassicauda, but Heavy Metal in Baghdad is far from frivolous. This is not to say that it isn’t fun, because at times, it is. The music is terrific, the concert scenes are a hoot to watch, and the band members (Firas Al Lateef on vocals and rhythm guitar, Faisal Talal on bass, Marwan Reyad on drums and the lightning-fast Tony Aziz on lead guitar) are all affable, funny, smart and Very, Very Metal. It is also, by turns, painful, sad, infuriating, suspenseful and just plain nervewracking. Directed and shot by the creative team behind VICE magazine, Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is both an exuberant fan letter and a street-level view of the most dangerous place in the world. I am worlds beyond impressed at the movie Alvi and Moretti have made, but I’m even gladder that they made it home alive. When you see this movie, you will understand just how remarkable a feat this is.
I do beg your forbearance, dear friends, if I belabor the point more strongly than necessity might dictate, but I do want you to see this movie, as many of you as possible. At the noon screening that Lloyd and I attended, there was one other person in the theatre with us. I hope that the turnout was better at the later showings, but I’m not holding my breath, especially considering that just up the street Iron Man is playing on an IMAX screen. (This is not a poke at Iron Man; we plan to see that, too, but we’re betting that that one will be around for a while, whereas Heavy Metal in Baghdad probably will not be.) If you are a metalhead—I know there are at least two of you out there who read PTMYB—you should see this movie. If you are not a metalhead but you appreciate a well-made documentary produced by smart filmmakers, you should see it. If you are a VICE reader, you should see it (and depending on where you live, you probably already have). If you oppose the war, if you support the war, or if you’re exhausted by the very thought of the war—particularly if you’re the latter—you should see it. If you plan to vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, it is absolutely imperative that you see it.
By the argument for invading Iraq as presented to us by the Bush administration, the four members of Acrassicauda were exactly the Iraqi-on-the-street whose hearts and minds we would win by removing Saddam Hussein from power. Interviewed in 2003, the band recalls how, when they applied for performance permits from the Ministry of Culture, they were asked “so what do you have for Saddam?” At the time, not having at least one song proclaiming Saddam’s greatness could land your band in jail, so they dutifully included a song with “yay, Saddam!” lyrics, which Marwan acknowledges were “fucking lies,” to keep themselves out of jail. Even with pro-regime lyrics, it was still a dangerous thing to be a metalhead in Saddam’s Iraq. Long hair was forbidden, beards even more so. (Faisal acknowledges, bluntly, that he is playing a dangerous game with the goatee he sports.) Wearing T-shirts silkscreened with the legends of American bands—or with any English on them—was dangerous. Headbanging was outlawed outright, supposedly for its resemblance to the motions of Jewish prayer. In early concert footage, you can see enthusiastic but subdued crowds, longing to cut loose and bang their heads, almost none daring to do so. By 2005, in the midst of spiraling post-invasion chaos, Acrassicauda staged a concert at the Al Fanar Hotel. (VICE had worked to organize this concert, but the day before the show, Eddy and Suroosh were stranded in Beirut, 500 miles from Baghdad.) Despite the power cuts, despite the logistical nightmares, the show went on. 60 Baghdad metalheads showed up, and their sheer frenzied exuberance, caught on video by their segment producer Johan, is a blast to watch. When the band launches into their incendiary song “Massacre,” the crowd goes nuts. The driving beat and opening power cords are thrilling, even as the lyrics, depicting civilian casualties of the war, are devastating. I could have listened for days.
If pre-invasion Iraq was dangerous for metalheads and critics of the regime, post-invasion Iraq is lethal for everyone who lives and works there—or tries to. VICE’s next attempt to enter Iraq, in 2006, is successful, but fraught with danger that almost defies belief: Having hired a security detail that includes a translator, two drivers and two gunsmen (as well as flak jackets and a truck full of guns), by the end of their stay, the security company has added 13 gunsmen to their detail. Tony and Marwan have left Iraq, crossing the border into Syria; Faisal and Firas are still in Baghdad, living 15 minutes apart from each other, but unable to see each other due to the danger inherent in just walking down the street. To speak English on the street, or to be seen with anyone speaking English on the street, is to invite gunfire. When Suroosh calls Faisal to arrange a meeting, Faisal’s only response is a whispered “okay;” to say any more, any louder, is unthinkable. At night Eddy and Suroosh stand on the balcony of their room at the Al Mansour Hotel, smoking, looking out over the city as bombs explode, gunfire peppers the air and Apache helicopters fly overhead. By day they ride down the streets of Baghdad, taking increasingly risky field trips as their translator grows visibly agitated. One such trip is to Acrassicauda’s old rehearsal space, tiny and dimly-lit, where the band used to write and play for 12 hours a day. A missile has destroyed the building, the rehearsal space and the band’s instruments, which are buried in the rubble. The exuberant young men who packed their jubilant show at the Al Fanar are either dead or have fled the country. Midway through one interview, Firas looks visibly pained. What I took for depression, or deep sadness, was actually anxiety. Curfew is four hours away, and the two hours before curfew are the most dangerous in Baghdad. “Can we go now?” he asks. This simple question is loaded with dread.
Acrassicauda’s tale is one that defies happy endings. This may seem a facile understatement, and in fact it is, but I think it’s worth noting because the desire for happy endings, or at least a measure of satisfaction, is strong, particularly among Americans. I’ve mentioned this story before—apologies to those of you who are tired of hearing me tell it—but about 10 years ago I read an interview with Daniel and Susan Cohen, who wrote children’s nonfiction readers until 1988, when their only child, Theodora, was killed on Pan Am 103 over Scotland. Daniel Cohen observed that one difficulty he and his wife found in their fight for justice was that people (not exclusively but mostly Americans) need, if not a happy ending, at least some purpose to their suffering. We want to know that someday our lost loved ones will be waiting for us over the horizon, but if we can’t know that, at least we should have something to show for our pain. Let us be better, stronger, more resourceful, more appreciative of small pleasures. It is enormously difficult for us to hear that sometimes there is no measure of satisfaction, that the only thing that can be found in loss and ruin is more loss and ruin.
This brings me back to Acrassicauda. In 2007, all four members of the band have reunited in Damascus, where the only work they can find is menial, under-the-table, illegal work, as Iraqi citizens are enjoined from working in Syria. (In an attempt to stop the flow of Iraqi refugees into the country, the Syrian government has imposed new entry requirements on new refugees, and regularly attempts to repatriate existing refugees.) There is a flash of the old Acrassicauda glory when they play a concert in a Damascus internet cafe—no mean feat when Faisal points out that there are no metalheads in Damascus—but the reality is harsh: They are poor expatriates, unable to work legally, forced to pawn their instruments to pay bills, missing their homeland desperately but knowing that returning is lethal. When, with VICE’s assistance, they are able to record a three-track demo, it is a psychologically rousing boost, but it is not enough of a leap forward to give their lives any stability.
Thanks to charitable donations that bought their plane tickets and covered some living expenses, Acrassicauda are now living in Istanbul. The cost of living in Istanbul is high, however, and the band is in much the same position as they were in Damascus. Entry visas into Europe or North America have not been forthcoming. The band was unable to attend the screenings of Heavy Metal in Baghdad at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival or the 2008 Berlin Film Festival. When the official film website calls Acrassicauda “literally a band on the run,” it does not exaggerate. The possibility of an entry visa to the U.S. appears beyond remote. (Among the appalling statistics offered in the film is that of the four million Iraqi citizens displaced by the war [two million displaced internally within Iraq, two million refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon], less than 500 have been granted legal entry into the U.S. Unfortunately, given the current rancorous debate over immigration in the U.S., I know that to mount an argument that more Iraqi emigres should be allowed in is an extremely difficult task, but I do hope that someone will pursue it.)
Yesterday morning, as I drank my coffee and perused the news, I found, via the Associated Press, a challenge issued by John McCain to Barack Obama, inviting him to join McCain on a trip to Iraq, so that he could see what has been accomplished on the ground in Iraq. If Sen. McCain’s offer is sincere, and if Sen. Obama accepts the offer, I would recommend that they watch Heavy Metal in Baghdad before they go. (Since I do not have a hotline to either the McCain or Obama campaigns, I suspect that my recommendation will go unheeded.) I’d be keen to know what they think of what they will see. I’d be particularly keen to ask Sen. McCain if turning Baghdad into a surreal and ultraviolent no-man’s land is considered an accomplishment on the ground, if the liberation of Baghdad was worth the lives of over 4,000 young Americans and over 600,000 Iraqi civilians, worth the homes and health and livelihood of millions of others, worth the safety and creativity and freedom of four young men whose dearest wish is to play fast, loud music together.
Going to see Heavy Metal in Baghdad on Memorial Day was not a political statement, but this is: If you live in New York or Los Angeles, please see this film. If you cannot travel to New York or Los Angeles, please consider buying the DVD when it goes on sale on June 10. If you don’t want to buy the DVD outright, please rent it from Netflix or Blockbuster or the rental outlet of your choice. Please watch this movie, please look at what one of the oldest places in the world has become, and then ask yourself, your family and friends and neighbors, your elected officials, and your presidential candidates: Is this why we fight?
(If you would like to make a donation to the band, or if you would like to learn more about the Iraqi refugee crisis, which the U.N. has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world, the Take Action link on the Heavy Metal in Baghdad website has links to various organizations, along with a PayPal button for donations to the band. You can also access the band’s blog and MySpace pages via the HMiB website.)