Dir. Eddy Moretti, Suroosh Alvi. Canada/US. 2007. 84 min.
Its title promises little but this big-hearted documentary delivers much. Beginning as a misguided if not utterly foolhardy travelogue - risking one's life in the world's most dangerous city to track down an amateur music group - it segues into a potent exploration of the meaning and fragility of intellectual freedom and the value of music as a safety valve for youthful rebellion. The anti-fan of metal music scoffs at his peril: the young men depicted in this film are on the front line in the war for freedom of speech.
A world premiere at Toronto, the film is sure to entice a smaller independent distributor. Its strong youth appeal - abetted by the mordant onscreen presence of co-director Alvi - and the universality of its underlying message, should lead to a limited theatrical run. It gives heft to the head-banger chant: for those about to rock, we salute you.
The title is at once intuitive and counter-intuitive. The pre-eminent war zone is apt to have much heavy metal - from tanks to shards of IEDs - but why, oh why, would anyone want to contribute to the noise'
With Moretti behind the camera and Alvi as a sort of embedded VJ, the film begins with their 2006 arrival in Baghdad. It is a nerve-wracking introduction to a journalist's life in Baghdad: The $1,500 per day security detail, the flack jackets, the weaving drive down the Highway of Death (as the road from the airport to the city centre is known).
The audience can now appreciate the challenge faced by Acrassicauda, the Baghdad foursome Alvi first essayed in a 2003 article in VICE, the magazine he co-founded.
Before the US invasion Iraq was a less-than hospitable base of operations. The band kept out of trouble by penning such memorable tunes as 'The Youth of Iraq', a tribute to Saddam Hussein.
Following the US invasion, Alvi and Moretti hired a local journalist to shoot the band in action after being unable to travel to Baghdad. So we see what they could not experience: the only record of the band's performance in Iraq. They were never able to play in Baghdad again.
The purpose of the trip is to track down the band members. They succeed in making contact with the bassist. It is hard to imagine a more lucid and candid observer of a society's disintegration. He makes the danger of his participation plain: anyone heard speaking English or in the company of Westerners on the street is subject to immediate execution. Even his heavy-metal themed t-shirt marks him for death.
He travels with the filmmakers to explore the band's old haunts. We see that their practice studio and instruments were destroyed by a US missile, while the hotel where they played their gig is now a no-go zone.
He also expresses his anger over the invasion, his frustration with the perception of Iraq as a land of fundamentalist zealots and talks of his daily fears.
And yet he must tow the line, and abandon his metal-head facial hair for the beard demanded by ideologues. Even his metal-themed t-shirt would mark him for death.
The film moves forward in time, to Damascus, Syria, to visit the band members who are now living as refugees. They have tried to make a go of things in Syria but the appetite for metal is wanting.
In a moving coda, the band members convene in a dingy apartment to the video of their Baghdad performance and then linger over their bitterness. The singer, his eyes filled with tears, stares straight through the camera and out of the screen.
VICE Films/VBS.TV (US)
Josh Braun, Submarine Entertainment