When it comes to documentaries, it takes a lot to make me say, “holy shit.” You put enough news headlines in front of someone’s face and, unfortunately, real life stories become less and less shocking.
But Vice Film’s “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” had me holy-shitting all over the place. All over Sweat Records, that is, where they had a screening of the movie last night.
And I don’t mean it was outrageous in the bombs-going-off, people-running-for-shelter way you might expect from a documentary about Iraq. No, we’ll leave that to the six o’clock news.
I’m talking shocking in the way that you kind of lean back on your comfortable couch and give a big cultural “whoa.” A big whoa because there are places in the world where music - singing, of all things - is forbidden. Places where self expression - how long your hair is, or wearing a band T-shirt - means the difference between living and dying.
Documentarians follow Iraq’s only heavy metal band (the genre is associated with Satan and is illegal) from 2003-2006 as their practice space is bombed, fans disappear and they eventually escape to Syria. Through the characters, who seem outwardly more Americanized than the documentarians (they say “dude” and “like” every other word) you get a glimpse into life in Iraq in a way most war reporters don’t have the time, the resources, and know-how to explore.
I don’t even like heavy metal music. At all. But you don’t need to. It’s not about that; it’s about cultural expression in Baghdad, where curfews are pushed, bullets fly and creative freedom is stifled.
At one point in the movie, there’s an old shot of the band playing music before Sadam was taken out of power. In order to play at the venue they hoped for, they were required to have written at least one positive song about the leader. (So much for anti-establishment.)
So the young musicians made up a half assed song about the dictator (something that rhymed “Hussein” with “make them go insane”). It reeked of weird propaganda. Watching the section, the intimate audience at Sweat couldn’t decide whether to laugh or throw chair at the screen.
In another shot, the band was interviewed outside of a hotel as bullets fired close by. The band members talked about music but were visibly nervous for their lives. They spoke for a bit until one of the guys asked “Can we go now?”
After the screening, a small impromptu group of arty kids and musicians gathered outside Sweat to smoke cigarettes and talk about the movie. One girl with tattoos, funky clothes and hair covering her face summed things up. “We take it for granted here - just being able to walk town the street or go see some music.”