Pretty amazing story. Pretty amazing documentary.
This is the story of a heavy metal band in Iraq. As far as anyone knows, the only heavy metal band in Iraq. The earliest footage is from 2002, a year before the U.S. invasion. It ends with the band members as refugees in Syria, where there are also few if any other heavy metal bands, and where they become apparently the first heavy metal band to record an album in Syria (or three cuts for an album anyway).
The movie is almost exclusively about the band members. They are the people you get to know. You get a little bit about the filmmakers themselves and their team that is putting together the movie, and you get a little bit about the Iraqi security people functioning as their bodyguards in Baghdad, but that’s about it. You don’t hear from the American military, the anti-U.S. militias, the Iraqi military, other ordinary Iraqi or Syrian civilians, etc. A little is mentioned about the band members’ families, but they aren’t shown.
You not only see the band practicing and performing and such (they manage about one live gig a year–for the pre-invasion one, they were obligated to write and perform a song in praise of Saddam as part of their set), but being interviewed at length about their lives.
That’s really the heart of the movie. One member in particular does the bulk of the talking, but they’re all fluent in English, they’re all intelligent and articulate, they all speak a very Americanized sort of slang (heavy on the “dude”s), and they all are willing to open up and get emotional.
What an absolute hellhole it is to live in a war zone like Baghdad, where virtually all civil order has broken down. (And Syria is no picnic for them later. As refugees, if they can get work at all, they are grossly exploited.) I’m blown away that they can hold it together even as well as they do. Heck, I’m impressed by the people making the movie. They put their lives at risk just by being where they were in Iraq, even accompanied by a team of bodyguards, and even though they knew it was temporary and they’d soon be back home. That’s plenty gutsy enough for me.
Of course I don’t care for their music particularly, but the way they speak of it, and the effects it has on them, won me over. It gives them something to be passionate about, something to focus their hopes on. They speak of how they can let out their frustrations banging away at their instruments. On the rare occasions they’re able to play for a few fans, they’re incredibly appreciative about being able to connect with people like that, being able to give them a little enjoyment, a little respite from their horrible lives.
There’s a poignant scene late in the film of the band in Damascus watching a rough cut of the footage shot of them years earlier in Baghdad. On the one hand, they’re all pumped about seeing themselves on TV, seeing themselves for the first time performing as a band. You’re happy for them the way they light up. But by the time it’s over, they’re close to tears. Because it’s brought them back to their home, to the awful lives they fled, to the land from which their families call them to tell them “Don’t ever come back. Don’t worry about us. Just save yourself and make whatever life you can away from here.”
The movie ends with the broke and desperate band members having sold their instruments to survive, and facing deportation back to Iraq, as the Syrians seek to relieve some of the pressure of the refugees overrunning their country. And you want to say, “Man, somebody sponsor these guys or something! Get them out of there to the U.S. or somewhere!” (The U.S. has absorbed close to zero of the refugees it created.) But of course that’s only because we’ve gotten to know them and care about them as individuals. There are millions of deserving internal and external refugees (not to mention people who stayed put).
The U.S. invasion and occupation has been an unmitigated humanitarian disaster for the Iraqis and for that region of the world. (Which is not to say they’d all be leading happy and wonderful lives if Saddam were still in power. I’m not making a comparative point.) I appreciate this movie because it puts a human face on that disaster.