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We Talked to the Filmmaker Behind the 'Syrian Metal Is War' Documentary About Survival and Resilience

This unstoppable metalhead, filmmaker, and refugee is raising funds to finish the in-depth documentary on Syrian metal he started in 2013.

by Kim Kelly
May 4 2016, 7:05pm

Photo courtesy of Monzer Darwish

The last time I spoke to Monzer Darwish, he was homeless. Born in Hama, a small city on the banks of the Orontes River that lies about 130 miles from Damascus, the filmmaker had been displaced by the horrifying violence of the Syrian Civil War. The catalyst for his departure came when, as he told me, “On the 21 of January, 2013, a huge explosion took place in my neighborhood. It took the lives of friends and neighbors all around me, and I never stepped foot there since then.” Over a hundred people across the country died that day, and Darwish hit the road, lugging his video camera and precious hard drives along with him.

We came into contact when he was promoting the first trailer for his documentary, Syrian Metal Is War. In the vein of rock docs like Death Metal Angola, Terra Pesada: Heavy Metal in Mozambique, and VICE's Heavy Metal in Baghdad, the film sees Darwish explore Syria’s embattled heavy metal scene and the world he left behind. Syrian Metal Is War, has been in the works since before Darwish left home; its long gestation period is due less to Darwish’s perfectionism than to the simple fact that he’s been forced to spent so much time in transi. As a refugee, he’s seldom found the time to sit down and edit his hours of footage, and spent many months without even basic electricity during his travels. However, now that he, his wife, and his bandmates have settled in a small town outside Amsterdam, the finishing point for Syrian Metal Is War is finally in sight.

Unfortunately, the reality of their long journey from Syria to the Netherlands presents one last, lingering hurdle; when he, his wife, and two of his cousins set off, they left everything behind—taking only Darwish's Canon camera—on their flight towards safety. Since their arrival, Darwish has stayed occupied with language classes, studying, and, undoubtedly, worrying about the rest of his family, who remain in Syria, but he’s been understandably anxious to finish what he started over three years ago.

His luck finally appears to be changing, though, thanks to a chance Swiss RTS report on his situation. It landed on sympathetic ears, inspiring a Swiss musician, Marie Riley, to offer her help. After realizing the difficulty of sending the needed materials to him directly, Riley set up a crowdfunding campaign. The goal is to buy Darwish a computer—in hopes that he can finish editing the film—and instruments, so that his band can finally play on peaceful soil.

I caught up with Darwish over Facebook chat earlier today to find out what exactly has been going on, and what the future holds. His typed responses came slowly, but reliably. “The buttons in my keyboard get stuck so I have to fight for each letter, he told me apologetically. “ A good friend of mine poured some very sweet tea on it back in Syria. I remember him everyday.”

Noisey: So how long have you been living in Amsterdam now? The last time we did an interview, you were still in Syria.
Monzer Darwish
: I've been in the Netherlands since July 2015

How did you get there?
After my application was rejected by the Swiss consulate in Istanbul, and because everything became much harder for Syrians in Turkey, we decided to take the rubber boat from Turkey to Lesvos island in Greece. The smuggler said it would take us 20 minutes, But it took us eight hours to reach only half the distance. When I took the rubber boat, the only thing I had in my bag was my Canon camera—not even clothes, just the camera, and I also documented the journey.

During these hours [on the boat], we were followed by the Turkish coast guards; the boat's engine was about to stop, until the Greek coast guards finally picked us up when we crossed into international waters. After arriving, the Greek police sent us to a mountain far from the city; for three days we stayed with no food or a place to stay. Any local who tried to help or communicate with us will be fined by the police. We had to walk for hours just to get water.

After that, we went to Athens, where we had two options: taking the main route most refugees use. that is walking, hitchhiking, or paying thousands to taxi drivers (most of them are actually just smugglers) to throw us near the next border. But we thought it was too dangerous, and it'd be ironic to die going to Europe after escaping Syria, so our other option was the airport. We bought fake Spanish IDs that we used to get from Athens to Schipol in Amsterdam!

Monzer Darwish / Photo courtesy of Monzer Darwish

Who all went with you?
Me, my wife, and two of my cousins, but we got separated from my cousins in Athens since they walked their [own] way.

Are they still in Greece?
No, they’re in Germany! As for the band, only one member is here in the Netherlands.

I didn't realize you had a band—did you reunite with the other guys in Amsterdam, or is this a new band for you?
Our vocalist is in the UK, and I reunited with the drummer in a center for refugees here.
Most likely I will start a whole new project as the last one is pretty much shattered!

We spoke for a bit about his past bands and musical projects, but Darwish requested that I keep that part of our conversation off the record due to safety concerns. As he explained:

This is one of my biggest problems, for the film, the band, interviews. For example, I have [a lot of] footage that would add a great context to the film, but sharing it could endanger my family, friends, because I was filming in a "banned" place, or could endanger the people in the videos for just being in that place. The fighting parts in Syria have this revenge culture—if you can't kill your enemy, then kill their loved ones. I think this is the how the war worsened in this very short amount of time!

How much progress has been made on Syrian Metal Is War since we last talked? I saw that an extended trailer is up!
When I was in Algeria, I had the chance to work on a good computer, so I edited a 33 minutes partial rough-cut that I screened at the Norient Film Festival that took place in Bern, Switzerland. The only gear I have at the moment is an eight-year-old laptop from Syria that can barely handle editing small videos.

That’s the point of your new crowdfunding venture, right—to purchase something better so you can finish the film. Who else is behind the campaign?
A lady from Switzerland, Marie Riley, Sent me an email a couple of months ago saying she would like to contribute by helping us with instruments and gear to edit the film. and that many bands and music shops are willing to help. but as it was very hard to send instruments or electronics from Switzerland to the Netherlands because of customs difficulties, she decided to start the online crowdfunding campaign.



Wow, that's amazing. How did she hear about you?
I believe she heard about the film in a report made by the Swiss RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse). Nouvo was the media outlet that made the report.

You've gotten a lot of media attention (including a great in-depth piece from the Atlantic) for your work on this film. Does that make you feel more pressure to get it done, or does it feel more like an extra level of support?
Both, actually. I feel a lot of pressure since I have been doing everything all by myself except for translations/subtitles/PR that was done by my friend Sam Zamrik. But today as I saw all the interest and the support around the world, it makes me feel great to know that people want to hear about the Syrian metal scene and that all the suffering and the hardships Syrian metal bands have faced to record their work—and the risk I took trying to document it—will not go in vain.

Now that you’re safe and settled in the Netherlands, have you had a chance to go out and experience Dutch metal culture?
I haven't had the chance to get involved or get to know the Dutch metal culture closely.
But I think metalheads everywhere are not so different. Most of the times making a new metalhead friend only takes a beer and a couple of mutual bands! What's different is the metalhead's societies and from which perspective do they see them!

The title of the film is very powerful, and works on a few different levels. It often feels like metal is at war with itself, on every front: politically, socially, even technologically.
I don't think any musical genre let us express our deepest thoughts, feelings, and opinions like metal music do. If it wasn't at a constant war on so many fronts, then it is not so different from the mainstream music! It's rare to actually have a serious problem when making any other type of music.

I don't know if I'd agree there (though maybe that's my American perspective, where hip-hop and pop atists are criticized quite a bit). But, I get what you mean.
Yeah, of course, that's my Syrian perspective—where rap, hip-hop, pop, are fine but you could go to jail for metal music!

Monzer with metalhead friends in Damascus, 2014 / Photo courtesy of Monzer Darwish

What do you hope to accomplish with Syrian Metal Is War? It seems like a perfect way to humanize metalheads and young Middle Eastern people, in a way that both groups can really use right now.
Today, my main goal is to help Syrian metal bands to be more recognized, at least among metalheads worldwide, only for the music they love to make. It makes me really sad to see that most of the media coverage about Syria shows only the war side and give no interest in showing the stories of normal people that the world can relate to!

The words “Syrian refugee” have been on everyone’s lips since the crisis grew to massive proportions earlier this year, and have been demonized by conservative xenophobes. As someone who escaped Syria and is working to build a new life, what do you think is most important for people to understand about refugees' lives?
One thing that makes me really terrified, is radicals sneaking inside safe countries refugees usually seek to take advantage of their crisis. But what makes me even more terrified is being blamed for it only because I am Syrian, though Syrians are only a part of the whole refugees proportion who come from dozens of other countries.

I think the most important thing people should understand about refugees is that each refugee, each individual, could be 100 percent different from the other. Dealing with refugees as a group of the same people with the same mentality and the same dreams will only cause more complexity to the situation, and will be an obstacle for refugees to integrate with their new societies.

What’s your plan for the film once it’s finally finished?
I believe I will screen it at festivals at first, and then maybe online!

Do you have any particular film festivals in mind?
Just yesterday I was at the Nederlands Film Festival in Utrecht. We met and talked about my projects, including Syrian Metal Is War, and about the possibilities for me in the Netherlands. but it's really hard to be sure until I have the final cut ready. That, of course, depends on whether I will have a computer soon or not.

Support Darwish's 'Syrian Metal Is War' crowdfunding campaign here—it's in the final week, so don't dawdle.
Find more information about the film here.

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter.