Heavy Metal in Baghdad is the first feature-length film from the Vice empire. It follows an Iraqi heavy metal band, Acrassicauda, from the start of the American invasion through their eventual self-imposed exile in Syria.
After years of disingenuous jokiness, Vice struggles to wipe the smirk off its face. Referring to the band as “heavy metal refugees,” the film condemns the injustice done to the innocent Iraqis in the name of building democracy. These “dudes” just wants to “grow their hair long, bang their heads and play metal as loud as they want.” (Of course, if they could, Vice wouldn’t be making a movie about them — they’d be making fun of them.)
Heavy Metal in Baghdad does as most documentaries do — makes a complex political situation approachable by telling a personal story we can identify with. It tells the story of Iraq through the eyes of four horns-throwing, “dude”-talking metalheads.
We chuckle to see Slip Knot t-shirts, Metallica posters and Iron Maiden DVDs in the hands of twenty-something Iraqis. An Acrassicauda fan explains to co-director and Vice founder Suroosh Alvi (some might remember him unloading guns on a roof in Pakistan from the Vice Guide to Travel) that they all just want to be free. Free to travel wherever, dress however, and listen to anything they want. “Like you,” he explains.
At some point, though, Vice begins to fall for their own ploy. Losing sight of the 1.2 million other Iraqis struggling in Syrian squalor with no homes to return to, the film quickly becomes about making the band’s dreams come true. Overcome with Angelia Jolie-esque benevolence for lovable Acrassicauda, they all but ask, “Can we just take them home with us?”
Granting Acrassicauda their dream of recording an album, the filmmakers paint a dire portrait of their impending forced return to war-torn Baghdad. The film’s website offers a PayPal donation button to “help Acrassicauda out of Syria and set up in a safer country.”
Just like with Angelina and her kids, it’s hard to criticize the actual act. Will this film help the metal heads and their families? Hopefully, and probably. Should Vice be applauded for producing something that won’t necessarily get them comp’ed runners and hoodies? Yes.
But it sort of misses the point. The point is that Iraqis live in a state of constant danger and death, and it’s getting worse. It’s a point Vice made with such singular inventiveness in their March 2007 issue (“The Iraq Issue”) that it would be a shame if their foray into film making keeps them from doing what they do best: making a magazine.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad offers a chance to see beyond the droll death toll reports and rhetorical jockeying that has come to constitute media coverage of Iraq. Dismissing sectarian divisions with a shrug and relying heavily on a “good old days” portrait of pre-war Iraq, we see the story told from the ground — more accurately, from the basement jam space of Acrassicauda. We come out understanding a little more about the chaos enveloping Iraq, and wanting to help the people caught in the middle of it. Hopefully not just the ones who like our music, though.