Interview with Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti: Heavy Metal In Baghdad By Mike

Sep 26, 2007

It’s unusual to cover metal bands in Razorcake—but this is a story about five young guys in a metal band in Baghdad. Yes, Baghdad. That sort of cuts across the “what kind of music do they play?” question. It may not get more DIY on earth.
The documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad follows the Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda as they try not only to survive in the war-torn city but also to practice and get gigs. Directors Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti (of Vice magazine {} and their online film channel give a brave look into the Iraqi situation. Proudly lo-fi, and all the stronger for it, the film shows how totally fucked the band is, where you can live fifteen minutes away from your best friend yet go six months without seeing them because you could get killed outside of your home.
Alvi and Moretti jumped into the city headfirst and created a powerful portrait of the situation not by analyzing the entire state of affairs but by giving you an insider, personal portrait of the band members and their lives over three years in Baghdad and later in Syria.
While other journalists seldom leave their confines—or are led around by the American military—Alvi and Moretti hired Iraqi security to take them into the streets. Growing out of their Vice Guide to Travel, the vibe is journalism at all costs. No one talking about Chernobyl anymore? Is it all better now or something? Well, they heard about two-headed animals there so they went hunting. People talk about being able to buy a tiny nuclear bomb in Bulgaria. Urban legend? Well they went and found the guy selling them. Everyone says you can’t go to Baghdad for a story. Well, they made a whole documentary about going into the country and a metal band there.
Forming in 2001 from a love of American metal bands, Acrassicauda [Firas (bass), Tony (lead guitar), Marwan (drums), Faisal (rhythm guitar) and Waleed (lead vocals)] was profiled in Vice as a stalwart, practicing as the country was spiraling downwards. They were only able to play three shows before the war started in 2003. Original singer Waleed fled the country and the rest of the band tried to continue on.
In 2005, the band pulled off a public show with the support of Vice, with an actual crowd. The scenes of the show are tense as army officials, bombs, and electricity blackouts all could ruin the show. But the kids are trying to live normal lives. Wasn’t that the goal of overthrowing Saddam?
Currently, the band members are refugees in Damascus, Syria, with the daily threat of being deported back to Iraq, where their practice space has been bombed out and they can’t go outside.
Randy: It was pretty touching when you introduced the original lead singer, Waleed, after the screening. 
Alvi: It was such a heavy moment, so intense. We’d only just met him right before the screening. It was the first time he’d seen footage of the [now bombed out] practice space. He cried throughout the whole screening. For him—to see the friends he left behind three years before, and how they grown up and Firas has a kid—it was a total mindfuck for him.
Randy: What is Waleed’s story—how did he get out of Iraq and to Canada?
Alvi: He got sponsored by the Emily Carr Institute, which is an art school in western Canada. And through some other friends and a big petition, that’s how he got out. I don’t know the exact details. It was a long process.
Randy: You mentioned that people could donate money to the band. Is the situation as simple as, if they have money they will be able to stay out of Iraq?
Alvi: We are putting text up on the website to make it more clear. They have devised a plan where they can get to a particular country where they can arrive with Iraqi passports—which are not worth the paper they are printed on. But they need money when they land, to show they have cash. They land as tourists and then can go and claim refugee status with the UN. We need to raise money to get them flights and cash in their pocket. Money to also survive on.
Moretti: The whole world community has closed its doors to Iraqis. My favorite story [involves] Howard, the Australian prime minister. A couple of years ago, a boatload of Iraqis were coming over and he had the Navy go out and turn it around. No one wants Iraqis, especially after the Glasgow airport bombings. They let in two Iraqi doctors, because they need doctors in England, and they turned out to be suicide bombers. So, people are paranoid. The West is totally off limits to them. Even countries like Sweden. They aren’t allowed to get on a flight or cross an international border. Their scope is limited right now. Especially young men.
Randy: Closer countries like Sweden and Norway can’t help the refugees?
Moretti: They can’t afford a plane ticket, or are allowed to get on an international flight.
Randy: Having a family does not help either.
Moretti: No. We tried to get them to this film festival [in Toronto]. I talked to the Canadian embassy in Damascus. They were supportive. But when the guys showed up with a letter from the festival saying they were personally invited to come to Toronto to see their film, the immigration officer in Damascus at the embassy gave them thirty seconds and said, “Don’t bullshit me, you are going to go there and take off.” The letter included Firas’ wife and son.
Even people with businesses in Iraq —“Oh, you’ve got a business in Iraq. You’ll come back to run your carrot stand in Baghdad. We know you’ll do that because it’s so valuable.” There is nothing that ties people to Iraq right now. There’s no incentive for any country to take them on a tourist visa. That’s the only way you can get real refugee status in the West. You are automatically granted a period of clemency and they assess your case. They do things for you. They give you money, put you in a hotel.
Randy: Isn’t Canada easier than the U.S. on the refugee status?
Alvi: Canada has a history of being easier on it. But you gotta get to Canada; that’s really challenging. Both Canada and America have quotas of the amount of refugees they are supposed to be letting in. And I don’t think Canada is fulfilling their quota. America has let 466 Iraqi refugees in last year, which is totally insane. They keep saying they are going to increase their quota, first 20,000, then by 5,000. But where are they? We are going to pursue the American angle as well. Hopefully, this festival will generate enough buzz that we create a strong petition for them to get into America. They’ll have support. They’ll have a purpose. They’ll have something to do. They won’t just come and be a burden on the system. They’ll have a chance at some semblance of a normal life.
Alvi: The guy, Mike, who you see in the film, spent a lot of money to get a fake British passport… We can tell the story, right?
Moretti: Sure.
Alvi: And goes to the airport in Damascus. They said, “Where were you born?” He said, [in English accent] “Manchester.” They said, no, you are Iraqi, and they put him in jail for three days and the passport cost $10,000. You know how much money that is for an Iraqi refugee? Cobbling it together, like, Mike still has a chance. He’s young, get him out. Even older Iraqis were, “He’s a special kid. We are in our thirties, we’re done.” That was their perspective. In their thirties, they’re like fifty-year-old men. Resigned to their position. Sitting around getting drunk every night. So he gets all the money together and goes to the airport and ends up in jail. He sends us texts every day. He has figured out how to text our phone from a computer so he’s not spending money on it. He says, “I’m so tired of my life. I can’t do this anymore. Please help me.”
Randy: Do Metallica and Slayer know the band’s story?
Alvi: Slayer has a copy of the movie. We are in touch with Metallica’s management and fan clubs and some of their bros around them. I think if they see this movie, they are all over the movie: T-shirts and graffiti. They’ve had a huge influence on these guys. Obviously, they know how far reaching they have been. Metal guys are like that, they are all bros. Like Acrassicauda said in their message [on the film’s website], “Let the metal unite us—let the metal rules.” I love that extra “s” on rule. System Of A Down has approached them on their MySpace page, seeing if they could do anything to help. The Foo Fighters know about them. Bands will help other bands. Especially these American guys who have money and want to help.
Randy: You guys run your own magazine, run your own website and online content channel, and are using those independent modes of distribution to get the message out without having to answer to a larger corporation. Most documentaries are trying hard to just get into theaters. Is there one aspect of the media that you think is the most powerful for what you are trying to do? Is the internet helping a lot more than screenings in theaters could?
Alvi: Getting into the [Toronto] film festival has been huge for us and the band. We called Marwan right after the screening and we talked to Firas yesterday and we told them, “Have faith guys. We took a step forward. More people know about your situation now than they did yesterday.” They have Google alerts, they go to internet cafes and see where the film is mentioned. They know something is happening. The festival is building buzz. After thirteen years of doing Vice, we know how to create buzz and do some marketing. We are pursuing all angles. We know that we need to do every single interview and tell them to go to the website, click on donate, send ten bucks. Whether it’s a website that some girl runs in New Jersey or CBC National…
Moretti: We’re going to make any [theatrical] distributor’s job really easy. The first intro to, the first five-minute clip, got over a million hits on YouTube before we pulled it down to finish the film. We are getting the word out and building an audience for the film. I think it’s a combination of the new media we have and the old. Getting into theaters is really important. There is still this real excitement of a theatrical release. It creates a different kind of buzz in the public sphere. It becomes an event where the public can go together and engage in something, where the internet is mostly old men masturbating by themselves.
Alvi: Hit them high and low. Getting the hits on YouTube is great, but—even watching it again on a bigger screen in the theater—it’s bigger, it has more of an impact.
Randy: And where some generations may not be on the internet, they will read a paper, and see the film section, and read a review of the movie. Did you have certain goals when you started
Moretti: The idea with VBS was to make something specific for the internet. When it came to news, we had a very particular goal—we want to cover big news stories but in a way that the mainstream press is missing. Even the way they conduct their shoots, they way they chase their story, their voice, everything’s got a protocol. You gotta talk up and down. This whole stupid thing that alienates so many people. Especially young people. Another fucking talking head standing in the poppy field of Afghanistan telling you that this is bad and dangerous and blah blah blah. It has no emotional impact. We wanted to do news that mattered to us. We wanted to be able to have an opinion and be able to learn along the way, not have to pretend to give you the definitive lowdown on where Bin Laden is, or whatever the case may be.
Alvi: We wanted to rip up that old rulebook.
Moretti: We didn’t know it so it was easy. [laughs]
Alvi: We’ve always believed that subjectivity is important with Vice. But with substantiation as well, so it’s not just some guy ranting.
Moretti: We did want one thing to happen with VBS. We wanted to produce in such a way that things could go from small pieces to [bigger ones]. We were imagining TV, not really film. These stories could migrate to a traditional medium. This has just happened fast. Like holy shit, we’ve only been up five months and we have this feature film.
Randy: The term that came to mind for the Vice style of reporting is gonzo journalism. But is that a fair term at all?
Alvi: No. We weren’t in a drug-fueled mission to Baghdad and partying in Sadr city with Iraqi prostitutes. When we started the Vice Guide to Travel the mission was 60 Minutes meets Vice, basically. Whatever label you can give that is what this is.
Randy: The king of the world in this vibe of news is 60 Minutes, but they still have a time limit with their medium. And as strong as they are, they still have sponsors paying for it. You guys have taken the level of story they do and made the form and distribution personal.
Moretti: A lot of our stuff is like that. Very first person. 60 Minutes is something we inspire to, a journalistic standard we admire.
Randy: You didn’t see any other journalists in the hotel in Baghdad. Did you encounter any at all?
Alvi: No.
Moretti: Yeah! Peter Arnett in the gift shop at the Palestine Hotel, which was cool. I think that was his last trip to Baghdad. The real story is, we landed in Baghdad and had no contact with the band for four days. We were just sitting there, driving around, filming things….
Alvi: Freaked out.
Moretti: Freaked out. We are finally here, we are paying for this huge militia now, and there’s no band to interview.
Alvi: There’s no story, no goddam story. [laughs]
Moretti: We were looking for B stories. “We’ll do something else.” No one wanted to talk to us. We had been in touch with the journalist for Harper’s. He sent our office in New York an email: “You have people in Baghdad, what? I strongly suggest you urge them to leave as soon as they can.”
Alvi: We had this idea that, oh, the Palestine Hotel, that’s where all the journalists stay. We just need to get there and we’ll get stories…
Moretti: Everyone will be at the bar, and drinking and talking. Guys with five cameras around their necks…
Alvi: We get there and it’s a-ban-doned. It’s like this [points to huge hotel lobby], with no people. One old Iraqi man at a desk with a dusty suit. Saddest thing…
Moretti: It was like being in the hotel in The Shining.
Randy: As opposed to the hotel in The Killing Fields? All these hardened dudes…
Alvi: Everyone was gone.
Moretti: The front desk guy told us it was a happening hotel, totally swinging—and now it’s like a mausoleum. We went to the gift shop to buy some gifts, and Peter Arnett was in there, flipping through books.
Alvi: He was rolling solo, too. His people were all outside.
Randy: Was he interested in what you were doing?
Alvi: We didn’t talk to him. Didn’t tell him. We let him be.
Randy: What does the gift shop sell?
Moretti: Lots of paintings.
Alvi: All by one artist. We bought like twelve of them.
Moretti: Oh we bought little boxes with George Bush’s head on it and Saddam Hussein’s head on it. Old Iraqi flags.
Alvi: In the film that’s one thing we noticed. In our hotel on the fourth floor there’s a French news agency. On the fifth floor was a Chinese embassy that moved in —and had a ping-pong table. As you take the elevator up, you hear this “bap bap bap bap” as you are going up. In the swimming pool the Chinese ambassador would be swimming around the pool. The security guards were following him around with their AK-47s and he is swimming with his glasses on. [laughs] So fucking surreal in that place.
From our balcony we could see down, seeing the journalists doing stand ups. “Today in Baghdad...” But [the journalists] would not leave the hotel. We talked to the French bodyguard, and he said no one leaves the hotel anymore. They send out Iraqi [news teams]. They get the story, they bring back the footage, and [the foreign reporters] report directly from the hotel.
Randy: How did you find the band then? Do cell phones work there?
Moretti: That’s what is really interesting about Baghdad. For the first six months of the occupation, post-war, whatever you want to call it—Baghdad had a 917 area code because it was being serviced by a cell phone company from Westchester.
Alvi: And we had wireless internet in our hotel. The whole time.
Moretti: We were right across from the Green Zone so it was incredibly wired.
Alvi: That’s the first thing the Americans did when they went in, supe it up. They never fixed the electricity, though. It’s still a mess.
Moretti: The last time I checked with the UN, the average was 2.4 hours of electricity a day, which means for two weeks you won’t get electricity, then for three days you will. Doesn’t mean, oh from 2:00 til 4:00 it’s on! At night, the town is really loud. Burrrrrrr. Maybe a million generators humming away. At every hotel it looks like they ripped the guts off a big diesel engine off a ship, sitting outside running. Every business or hotel is a fortified compound there. It’s really shitty. A bad place.
Randy: Syria must have been easier to deal with.
Moretti: Much easier.
Alvi: Syria had no internet. [laughs] It has a huge Russian modem serving the whole country, like a dial-up. Syria is a weird, weird, dark place. But maybe that’s because we were spending 100% of our time with refugees who were suffering.
Randy: Is the entire movie made in one trip to each country?
Alvi: We filmed the whole movie in a week in Baghdad and a week in Syria. Before we were there, it was a day filming the concert. But that was pretty much it.
Randy: But you two didn’t make the concert.
Alvi: No. We set it up. We were working on the Vice Guide to Travel in Beirut and supposed to fly into Baghdad on a Lebanese airline called Flying Carpet. I had read so much up on it, I was sketched out. Cash only. You meet the pilot, give them cash, they walk you to the back of the airport. They fly you to Baghdad. They were doing serious corkscrews at that time. Because the airport was small. We were ready to go and then the flight got cancelled. We called the band and asked them to postpone the show. They said, “No fucking way. If we cancel it, we have no way of telling our fans it’s cancelled. They’ll all show up. They could get killed, so we are going on with the show.” We talked to [photojournalist] Johan Spanner and he filmed it. So fifteen days of shooting for the movie, forty hours total content. Apparently, that is a super low amount of footage.
Randy: Not everyone gets the immediate content that you did when you showed up.
Alvi: That’s Baghdad. But we were never thinking “feature” in our brains, you know what I mean? We were just getting content for VBS. A feature was not in the design at the time. Eddy and I came back and put all the tapes on [editor] Bernardo’s desk and started getting back to the million other jobs we had to do. He came up to us and said it’s really strong content, there’s a story here, these guys in the band are amazing. When we found out they regrouped in Syria [Bernardo] said, “Go, that’s the third act.” And I’m like, “What’s a third act?” That’s how little I know about film. Knew about film. Then we went to Syria with better cameras. As the film progresses we got a better understanding of what we were doing. Eddy got a better camera to work with; it starts looking better.
Randy: It’s not about the film style, but about the guys and the story. Other documentaries are slick and have tons of cutaways—you have shots of Suroosh listening.
Alvi: That was a problem. [laughs] I’m so sick of looking at my face but we didn’t have anything else.
Moretti: I don’t have much excuse for Syria, but in Baghdad, you don’t sit around and get B-roll. “Let’s get out of here.”