Jeremy Xido’s “Death Metal Angola” is being considered by many who’ve seen it to be a serious Best Documentary contender in the Oscar race this year and it’s not hard to see why. Xido’s doc – which examines the death metal subculture that emerged from the war-torn streets of Angola, a republic that is still reeling and rebuilding after a civil war that lasted twenty-seven years – is ultimately an affirming testament to the power of an art form that will ultimately unite and solidify a fractured culture. Given that the art form in question is death metal – that allegedly “dangerous” kind of hard-rock music that Joe Lieberman warned us about, the kind characterized by chugging, down-tuned guitars, Cookie Monster vocals and assaultive drums that sound like aural air raids – it’s a curious prospect, but it turns out to be an immensely rewarding one. “Death Metal Angola” is deeply involving and, in its own way, completely and refreshingly unusual. The film gains traction through its deft perception of how primal, some say violent, music ultimately serves as an outlet for conflicted notions of national identity. The kids in this film may be proud of their heritage, but there are also atrocities in the past of their homeland that simply cannot be ignored. Xido’s film, in spite of openly addressing heated political issues and casting an unsparing eye to the serious poverty of Huambo, Angola’s capitol city, is ultimately a stirring, broken-mirror reflection of a part of the world often and unfairly neglected, and also a celebration of music and its power to heal the wounds of an entire culture.
But wait, I’m sure some of you are saying. Death metal? The power to heal? I’m aware that it may sound incongruous to the uninitiated. To this reviewer, at the age of thirteen, nothing was cooler than death metal. It was the ultimate rebuke to authority, the most extreme form of rebellion. I even cut the sleeves off one of my childhood denim jackets and ended up drawing some truly unholy shit on the back with a sharpie marker (I wanted it to look like my favorite Cannibal Corpse album cover). The lyrics of the bands I listened to were the kind of stuff that gives parents nightmares for weeks: murder, death, hell, deviant sexuality, murder, godlessness, the devil (of course) and did I mention murder? My folks were understandably concerned. And yet the lyrics of the songs played in “Death Metal Angola” – the tunes themselves are as sonically brutal as any American death metal you’ll ever hear – are rousing and politically conscious, the kind of call-to-arms one usually associates with straight-edge punk. The musicians themselves, when interviewed, are friendly, goofy kids with ear-to-ear smiles. They exude a sort of jocular playfulness that is miles away from the stereotypical blueprint of death metal-heads as anti-social weirdos. It’s a refreshing reminder of the healthy gap between the art and the artist: the idea that these smart, gifted young people are exercising a healthy aggression that in no way reflects some kind of tortured inner state. And yet, that is not to suggest that the songs in the film are without their fair share of righteous fury: while there’s little talk of bodily dismemberment, there are songs committed to describing the “blood in the streets” and of course, plenty of hellacious riffage. The socially motivated anger behind these songs – the idea that the emotional turmoil that fuels the best of this kind of music arose from deep-seated social and political upheaval – is hardly accidental. The members of the film’s featured bands (Before Crush primarily, but also Black Soul, Neblina and others) are young and full of energy, but they are far from apathetic. This film is the story of how their concerted efforts almost turned Huambo around completely.
Xido’s film wisely dispenses with most of its expositional set-up right at the outset. The civil war that followed Angola’s independence from Portugal ultimately cost the country 500,000 lives. There are tales told of corpses left on the city streets to rot because no one could keep up with the escalating death toll – the bodies were piling up too fast. Stray dogs would often eat the decomposing flesh of the fallen dead. It’s certainly the type of ghastly, unspeakable imagery that one often associates with hardcore metal music. In one of the film’s first images, we see the guitarist for Before Crush standing in front of a mic, noodling on some heavy riffs and practicing his best, guttural death-metal growl. The disembodied nature of his performance – the vocals isolated from his guitar work, his apparent awareness of his own preternatural prowess as a player – immediately catches the viewer’s attention. From that point on, Xido casts a keen, almost anthropological eye on the inhabitants of Huambo: their day-to-day lives, their reflection on the chaos and death that has come before and their need to make it better – by any means necessary. Cinematographer Johan Graie seamlessly captures a sense of rot and decay that has enveloped the city, although flourishes of undeniable natural beauty manage to creep in through the cracks. The primary sensation we get from these ghostly images is that of an entire people struggling through the harshest conditions imaginable: life during wartime. How does one stay of solid mind and body while living under circumstances that would break the weaker amongst us? How do we persevere?
“Death Metal Angola” gets pretty damn close to answering that question in a satisfying manner. The majority of the film revolves around the efforts of Sonia Ferreira – a chatty, soulful woman who runs a busy orphanage in the heart of Huambo – and Wilker Flores, Ferreira’s partner and a member of Before Crush, to organize a large-scale death metal music festival that will showcase the best of the city’s underground music scene. On a purely technical level, watching Flores and Ferreira build their elaborate game plan from scratch – where the stage should go, how it will be built, what bands will play and when – is totally fascinating. This is not some overblown mainstream event like Coachella; we are truly watching a grassroots effort being formed from the ground up and for fans of methodical procedure in documentary filmmaking, this is one of the picture’s richest sections. It’s not dissimilar to the from-the-feet-up approach of “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” if one were to substitute urban New York for a war-ravaged Angola, and Chappelle’s love for socially conscious hip-hop for the grinding, righteous din of death metal. “We say that rock hasn’t been accepted, but we also haven’t had a great effort to promote it,” Flores says at one point around the film’s middle section. It’s a canny bit of observation: an acknowledgement that much of the capitol city’s rich culture had been stripped away as a result of the war, but also that the drive to keep the culture thriving is very much alive in the people of Huambo. All music can be viewed as a reactionary statement against the culture that produced it – the Ramones stripped away the turgid bloat of ’70s radio rock to take it back to what they thought were the essentials, N.W.A. put the fear of god back in rap music that they felt had gone soft. The music of bands like Before Crush reflects, in the words of another character, “the wars [we] went through” and the anger inherent in their music can almost be seen as an effort to re-write their own national history.
About two-thirds into the film, Ferreira and Flores hit a snag and the question of whether or not the concert will happen becomes an open one. It introduces a modicum of dramatic tension to the film’s proceedings, but “Death Metal Angola” works best as a ground-level examination of a burgeoning musical subculture that is teeming with creative vigor. Being a professed fan of the genre, I was blown away by the virtuosity and passion with which these young musicians play. Some may call it naïve, some may call it overly sincere, but these kids really are playing because they think they can change the world – and in their own small, but impactful way, they already have. “It sounds true,” says one musician of his band’s music. “And it’s the truth that we’re after.” Xido’s riveting doc is about the truth that can ONLY be expressed through art – when lofty rhetoric simply won’t cut it and you have to kick out the jams in the name of justice. “Death Metal Angola” should help to showcase the oft-maligned musical subgenre of death metal in a new, positive light, as well as helping to shed a much-needed light on this unfortunately ignored part of the world, where music is not so much a hobby as it is an escape. “Death Metal Angola” is engrossing, entertaining and, above all, deeply true – here’s to hoping more people find a way to see it. [A-]