Dodging Bombs, Playing Heavy Metal: Reflecting on the Film Heavy Metal in Baghdad

What's it like to be an Iraqi musician playing music of "foreign", "Western", or American influences? How does one live as a musician or an individual in contemporary Baghdad? Produced and Directed by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi and presented by VICE magazine, the documentary film Heavy Metal in Baghdad offers some answers to these questions contributing to a much needed public discourse about the social life of Iraqi citizens living on the cusp between life and death. The film premiered on the Sundance Channel last month.

The film documents the story of an Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda tracing its transformations from rehearsing in the basement of a commercial building during Saddam Hussein's regime, through dodging bombs while facing death threats after the U.S. invasion and the reactive insurgences, to fleeing to exile in Syria. The story focuses less on the band's music than on their lives as musicians and Iraqi citizens living in tumultuous war violence and tribulations. It also shows the emotional centrality of this music in the lives of these musicians and fans. Acrassicauda's drummer Marwan Riyadh describes his powerful connection to heavy metal succinctly: "If I didn't play drums as hard as I can, I'm going to kill someone."

Acrassicauda perform a show powered by a generator at the Al-Fanar Hotel in Baghdad, 2005.

One member of Acrassicauda says, "It's so amazing that we're still talking and breathing." Since the making of the film, Firas al-Lateef, Marwan Riyadh, and Faisal Talal of Acrassicauda have fled to Istanbul, Turkey. Recently, they resettled in the United States, with the help of International Rescue Committee and the director/producer of the film Alvi, now living in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. They're working hard to get their ends met, finding instruments.

In Iraq, the band identified with the West and the United States singing in (North American) English, listening to Metallica, and wearing Slipknot tshirts. I'm anxious to follow the band after their relocation to the U.S. How will they survive in the U.S. declining economy as Iraqi refugees and musicians? How long would it take before they have sufficient time and funds to start playing music again? How will they distinguish themselves from all other U.S. metal bands? What will they write about in their songs? Will they change their sound?

A couple of weeks ago, Terry Gross of Fresh Air on NPR did a 40-minute interview with lead singer Faisal Talal, drummer Marwan Riyadh, and director/producer Suroosh Alvi. The interview highlights the in-between status of their political existence and the experiences of their forced migration. On the NPR story page, one can also screen the entire film. For those interested, VICE has made a page for those who consider making donations to the band.

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