Festivals nurture music documentaries

LA fest showcases war, rock films

Amid the remakes, sequels and comic book/graphic novel adaptations that Hollywood has been cranking out, there's been a surge in another kind of film.

A number of music documentaries have been hitting the screen -- perhaps because musicians' lives seem to involve endless drama or perhaps because mainstream audiences have responded well to such big-budget hits as "Ray" and "Walk the Line."

The festival circuit has nurtured many of these films, leading to home video releases for some, pickups by the indie arms of the major studios for others and further screenings at festivals, including the Los Angeles Film Festival, which begins tonight.

And after a slew of Iraq-set movies, a very different one has been gaining attention.

"These are our fans. Most of them are dead or out of the country." That's a line from the documentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," which focuses on Acrassicauda, Iraq's only heavy metal band. Shown on the screen are a bunch of young Iraqi music fans, decked out in Slayer T-shirts and trying their damnedest not to headbang, which was forbidden in prewar Iraq because of its resemblance to Jewish davening -- an act of prayer that involves moving the top half of the torso back and forth.

Released on DVD on June 10 after acclaimed screenings at the Toronto and the Berlin film festivals, "Baghdad" represents a wave of recent music documentaries that have resonated with critics and audiences.

For "Baghdad," however, its inclusion at Toronto and Berlin did more than build buzz. Its drawn attention to the refugee crisis generated by the war in Iraq, as exemplified in the life stories of the four members of Acrassicauda.

Filmmakers Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi first heard of Acrassicauda (Latin for "black scorpion") after then-MTV News correspondent Gideon Yago wrote an article about the band for Vice magazine. (Alvi is co-founder of Vice, Moretti is head of Vice Films and VBS.TV.) As recounted in the documentary, the two travel to Iraq to meet the band in 2006 at the height of the insurgency.

"You don't think about the violence when you see it on the news," Moretti says. "And you don't actually think about it all that much when you are there. It's amazing, and this is part of the problem -- how people acclimatize their psyches to stress and difficult situations."