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Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Iraqi Power Chords

by KIM NICOLINI

As a general rule, I’m a fan of rock documentaries. As an artist and writer, I find the rock documentary formula inspiring. Whether I like the particular band or not isn’t really the issue.  The traditional rock documentary is about the struggle of the creative process. It’s about people who are driven to express themselves in music. It’s about what drives them to create music and the nuts and bolts of how they create their art. The movies usually culminate in a grand finale of the creative project, such as the recording of an album or performing of a concert, which symbolizes victory over all the battles we must fight in order to fulfill our creative dreams. The fact that this final product usually comes in the form of rock music motivates me to get off my ass and make something creative of my own (e.g. write this a review of a rock documentary).

Enter the documentary Heavy Metal In Baghdad. Like the classic rock documentary, this movie is about musicians who want nothing more in the world than to make an album. There is only one big difference between the musicians we see in this movie and the guys we see in every other rock documentary ever made. They are Iraqi. This documentary follows the heavy metal band Acrassicauda for four years, from 2003 – 2007. In the process, it not only documents the struggles of a band of guys who play heavy metal music, but also provides one hell of an eye-opening testimony of what it means to be young men living in a Muslim war-torn country. This isn’t just a rock documentary. It’s also a war documentary. A scream for liberation encased in the grinding noise of electric guitar and the pounding urgency of drums. It’s a hardcore look inside Baghdad during the first decade of the 21st century. It’s a glimpse inside of a world that most of us could never imagine living in. As the filmmakers sit in an apartment and we hear explosions and gunfire outside the window, one of the band members talks about why he plays heavy metal music: “If you really want to know what is the attraction, look around. We are living in the heavy metal world.” Indeed, these guys aren’t just playing heavy metal. They are living it, and whether you’re a fan of heavy metal or not, their story is fascinating and compelling and one that needed to be told.

Founded in 2001, Acrassicauda is credited with being the first Iraqi heavy metal band. What is interesting to me is how much the band is committed to adopting the stance, style, language and presentation of American heavy metal. They have adopted the language of the very country that has caused so much destruction in their home. They are obsessed with speaking American English while they live in a country that has been ripped to shreds by the American occupation. But they are not speaking the English of the military, the bureaucrats, or the politicians. They have very consciously adopted the English of American rock, peppering their sentences with all manner of “fucks” and “likes” as in, “You can like get killed at any fucking minute walking down the streets. Like it’s a real fucking mess out there.” It’s fascinating listening to them speak and deploying the language of metal while also sensing the intense confines of their political and religious environment. Although their music and their use of American idioms scream for freedom, their demeanor is exceptionally controlled, cautious, and restrained by the prohibitive environment of their culture.

Acrassicauda’s dream may be to produce a heavy metal rock album, but in reality they live in a culture where playing the music is literally dangerous and life-threatening. They are seen as heretics just for wearing a shirt that says Metallica on it, and they risk being spontaneously executed (literally) by any number of insurgent groups simply for liking the music they like. Their stilted syntax is like the manifestation of their stilted lives as they live in an extreme environment of war, violence, and prohibitions. They may utter the word “fuck” and churn out their rage through instruments plugged into amplifiers, but when they speak, it is with an inward sense of restraint, of knowing the limits and risks of living in Iraq. Also, because they live in a Muslim country, they are not allowed to grow their hair long. Long hair is like the ultimate bodily rebellion of heavy metal musicians. As the band members talk in their forced and studied Americanisms, we literally see the embodiment of their oppression in the shortness of their hair. We experience the tension between who they “are” and “want to be” and the severe restrictions their culture puts on their ability to exercise creative freedom.

Acrassicauda’s all-time heavy metal heroes are the American band Metallica who are the Icons of Metal, but the world of Metallica and the world of Acrassicauda couldn’t be more different. This is not Los Angeles or San Francisco. These guys are playing in Baghdad, the center of a war-torn Muslim country that was literally being blown to bits as the movie was being filmed. The band’s music itself is an outcropping of their severe environment. The music explodes from the members, as the bombs literally explode outside their windows. In fact, to a large degree the documentary uses the band and its music to provide a tour of life in Iraq, starting with living under the reign of Saddam Hussein and continuing with the American occupation of Iraq, the fall of Saddam, and the rising civil war and violence.

As the movie is being filmed, we pay witness to the danger all around. In one scene, the band is being interviewed by a swimming pool as gunfire goes off just beyond the fence, and the band abruptly stops the interview to seek safe shelter. In other scenes, bombs go off over roof tops like apocalyptic fireworks. During the course of the film, the band’s studio where they practiced for four years is bombed, and all their instruments are destroyed. The band talks about the dead bodies that were pulled out of the rubble. In fact, there is a lot of talk about dead bodies, about stepping over them and about the threat of becoming one of them. Over and over again, the band members state that they could die at any moment. They acknowledge their tenuous hold on mortality simply because they live in Baghdad, and they express the danger they put themselves in by playing heavy metal music. They talk about the so-called democracy supposedly introduced by the US occupation of Iraq. One of the band members describes the fallacy of freedom in post-Saddam Iraq as: “We have the troops and the terrorists and us in the middle. That’s the democracy we have now. Fuck this democracy.” Yet, the band embraces the metal music of that “democracy” to express their outrage. Then again, American metal is also, to a large degree, using the music to say “fuck this democracy.”

Regarding Saddam Hussein, in one rather humorous scene, the band recounts the story of seeking permission to play a concert in Baghdad under the Hussein dictatorship. The “ministry of whoever approves concerts” asked if they were going to play a song about Saddam. Bands were only allowed to play concerts if they also played a tribute to Hussein. So the band had to make up a song to be allowed to perform. The documentary includes archival video of the performance, and the song is a fiercely patriotic tribute to Saddam which is actually an enormously angry and scathing condemnation of the Hussein regime. When asked how it felt to perform the song, one of the band members replies, “To stay away from the devil, you have to sing for him.”

But the devil does not die with Saddam Hussein. As the documentary follows the band in their post-Hussein world, it is a literal hell occupied by many devils – the American military, the presence of private American “security” forces like Blackwater, and dozens of Iraqi insurgency groups. Bombs, gunfire, explosions, gutted buildings, rubble and the threat of violence are everywhere in this movie. The music and the lyrics to the songs are filled with much more intensely desperate, angry, and insistent outrage than you would ever find in traditional American heavy metal (produced in the comfortable freedom of our “democracy”). The music also contains Middle Eastern riffs that locate it specifically at the epicenter of the Iraq War. You want to hear the sound of “authenticity” in music, Acrassicauda is it.

When the band does actually play concerts, they are not in the high-tech arenas of America, not even in the dark chambers of nightclubs, but in bare-bones buildings that look like gutted conference rooms. The people who come are all men, and for one night they risk their lives by wearing their Slipknot, Metallica, and Slayer t-shirts to the concert. They swirl their short-haired heads in violent “head-banging” circles, only dreaming of the long hair they would like to whip around them. As we watch the band pound out the music and the audience thrash around on the floor, the explosive and urgent desire to escape the horror of their world pours through every striking chord of the guitar, bellow of the vocals, and beat of the drums. As one band member states about playing a concert: “You just feel like there’s chains all around you and for two hours or three hours we free ourselves from those chains.”

Danger is the operative word in this movie, not just the danger that the band members are in, but the danger the filmmakers put themselves in to make the documentary. It is a mesmerizing and mind-boggling ride we go on as we watch the filmmakers navigate their way back into occupied Baghdad after the fall of Hussein. They risk being shot down in a plane as it winds its way down to its risky landing in Iraq. When they do land, they have to shell out thousands of dollars for their “guide” who provides them with an armored vehicle, bulletproof vests, and a literal stash of arms. We follow them through checkpoints where most of their film is confiscated, and we ride along with them as they weave through the roads to Baghdad hoping to hell they don’t hit a roadside bomb. Walking the streets of Baghdad, we feel the threat of snipers at every turn, and we see the military presence everywhere as Americans walk the streets or rumble through them in tanks loaded with massive weapons armed and ready to fire.  And these are literal threats. This shit isn’t made up or staged. When the music studio is blown to bits, it is really blown to bits. Those bombs going off on the not-to-distant horizon and lighting up the evening sky are literal bombs, not CGI special effects created by some techno-wizard in Hollywood. This is everyday carnage.

The band eventually leaves Iraq, and the members become “Heavy Metal Refugees” in Syria. The documentary follows them from Baghdad to Damascus where we experience their plight as outcasts who want nothing more than to put out a record album. We follow them to their windowless basement apartment where they receive news from their families telling them never to come back to Baghdad because it is too dangerous and their chances of being killed are too great. As in the rest of the movie, the scenes in Syria are both a war documentary and a rock documentary. On one side we see these young men’s brutal struggle to survive, working seven days a week performing grueling labor for $100 month just to maintain their squalid basement home which doubles as their practice space. On the other side, we see the hardcore reality of all Iraqi refugees as the filmmakers take us on a tour of the “Cemetery of Strangers,” a sea of tombstones marking the graves of refugees who fled the violence of Iraq and died in Damascus.

But the movie never loses sight of its focus – the band Acrassicauda – and its members’ struggle to express their freedom through music. At this point, the film zeroes in on the rock documentary formula as the band pushes to find a place to record some demo songs. They finally make it to a studio to record, and the technical time in the studio is fascinating. In one scene, the drummer talks about being asked to “de-mute” his drums. He has never had the freedom to play his drums without muting their sound. He opens the bass drum and pulls out old clothing, blankets, and pieces of tire rubber that were stuffed inside it to mute the sound. The first strike of his drumstick on his un-muted drum is the sounding of a liberated voice and an enormous victory that reverberates straight to the heart. They talk about mixing the “sounds of war” into the music – bombing airplanes, women screaming, dying children – to locate the music specifically in their literal “heavy metal world.” This is music that is informed by war. This is music that grew out of young men who were forced to live fast, grow fast, learn fast, and who lived with the serious threat of being killed at any moment every single day of their lives. After days of hard demanding work, they do it. They press three demo tracks. No this isn’t a Billboard Top 10 album, nor is it an arena rock concert. But this small demo tape is an enormous triumph considering that all the odds were against the band to get to this point.

But the movie does not take the victorious way out. Unlike other rock documentaries that end in an affirming climatic moment of the record release and concert, Heavy Metal In Baghdad ends with the band sitting in their cold, stark basement apartment watching the footage of the documentary to date. They watch the past four years flicker on the screen, and they are confronted with the gunfire, the bombings, and the gutting of their lives. One of the band members watches and talks about how with Saddam Hussein they were at zero and at least they knew where they were. When the Americans occupied Iraq, they became “less than zero,” and they were totally displaced. The band members watch the documentary footage of a movie about their own lives, and at the same time they are watching the whole trajectory of life for young Iraqi men crying out for freedom while being displaced, oppressed, and threatened on all sides.  We hear the band members sniffing and see the wet trace of tears around their eyes as they watch their home which was ripped asunder, as they see themselves practice in their old studio, and then see the gutted rubble of its remains after it was bombed. They watch their own lives and feel the horror of their circumstances, and these men literally cry. One member cries out in outrage over how sad it is. He issues a stream of “fucks” and “pigs” at the camera. Another shakes his head, and in an American anachronism turned inside out says, “Those were the old good days.” To think that those were the “old good days” is indeed sad.

As the band reflects on their lives by watching themselves on the TV screen in their apartment, we are also asked to reflect on their lives and the lives of all people who live in a world of prohibition. For example, we ask ourselves about the women we never see in the movie because of the extreme prohibitions on women in a Muslim-ruled country. Women are mentioned (wives and mothers) but never seen. But mostly, we are asked to question our own lives and the freedoms we take for granted, like my freedom to write this review of this movie. We shake our heads in awe and respect for these guys who tried their damnedest to use heavy metal music as a road to creative freedom. As the band watches the movie, we realize the ending is indeed sad, very sad, and that this documentary is their swan song, their final victory.

The film closes, and we learn that the band eventually had to sell their instruments to pay rent. That is the final note. The economic reality of their life as refugees supersedes their all-consuming desire to create heavy metal music. The last note of the film, while anti-climatic and breaking the classic trajectory of the rock documentary, is the final crown on what makes this movie so utterly compelling and fascinating. It is a movie that is about music, but it is about music as a manifestation of a political environment. It is about music that comes from a specific geography, history, and politics. It is a movie about war and oppression, and it is a movie that takes us into the heart of Iraq that we rarely see on the news or in the paper. And that heart resides inside the music and lyrics of the heavy metal band Acrassicauda and the band members who risked everything to create the band and keep it together.

After watching the movie, I did a little research to see what happened to the band, and I learned that not only are the band members living in political asylum in the United States, but they have also produced an EP Only the Dead See the End of the War. How interesting it is that they found the freedom to produce music in the very country that turned their homeland into a living hell and played a significant role in their need to flee Baghdad. I also discovered their video for the song "Garden of Stones", which incorporates film footage of the carnage in Iraq into their music. When the band stands in front of the screen pulling the brutal strains of music out of their instruments and voices, that carnage flickering on the screen is all too real. On another note, one of the things I enjoyed most in the video is seeing that the members now have long hair! I would love to ask them what it feels like to finally have long hair, to whip it around their heads as they rip their music out of their instruments. Never have I seen hair length carry so much political weight.

On the other hand, for all the band members’ so-called freedom, they continue live as refugees, and their families are still back in Baghdad. They temporarily possess the surface guise of freedom in the United States, but we all know how tenuous that freedom can be in today’s xenophobic climate. I’m glad Acrassicauda  was finally able to get its music produced, but I can’t imagine that the struggle the band members have gone through to get here to produce it, the plight of their families back at home, or the reality of life in Baghdad have been left very far behind. I can’t imagine that they are not painfully aware of the cost of their “liberation.” That awareness is clear in their music.

Whether you’re interested in heavy metal music or not, I encourage you to watch this documentary. It is so much more than just a story about a band of rock musicians. The story of Acrassicauda is story that needs to be shared and heard. I watched it streaming on Netflix. It’s also available on DVD and many video streaming services.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.  

 

 

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