Monzer Darwish is a 23-year-old graphic designer and metal fan from Al Salamiyah, Syria, a district near Homs. For the last five months he’s been travelling around the country and visiting refugees in Lebanon for a documentary he’s making about underground metal bands in war-torn Syria. Needless to say, it's a tough gig. People who are into metal have been persecuted in Syria for years by people who think they’re Satanists. When they're not saving up fuel to practice with power generators, they're worried about other things, like suicide bombers turning up to shows.
Monzer (who taught himself just about everything) is producing, directing, editing, and promoting Syrian Metal Is War on his own, with no crew and basically no resources. He’s sold pretty much everything he has to raise money and has taken out a loan on top of that, which he’s hoping to pay back by crowdfunding.
Making the film is dangerous and expensive. Monzer says that he wants to stay alive for long enough to finish the film, and so talking directly about politics and religion wasn’t an option. We chatted on Facebook for a while, and then we Skyped once he had enough fuel for his generator to keep the internet and his laptop going.
VICE: It’s impressive that you’re making this really ambitious feature film on your own. What made you decide to dedicate all this time and money to the project?
Monzer Darwish: I know the suffering metal musicians have to go through to make music in Syria. The metal community is suffering from massive amounts of oppression imposed by bigotry and misunderstanding; it is surrounded by everyone, and still the musicians are making, producing, and playing metal. I think that's remarkable, and I'd like for the world to see this phenomenon.
Why do people in Syria give metal fans so much abuse?
They are raised to fight, hate, and persecute anything that’s different or foreign to them.
Are there still shows?
Mostly cover shows. A couple of months ago we played a show in Aleppo; it was called Live Under Siege, we felt that the songs we were playing (like Sepultura’s "Territory") had lyrics that describe things happening like two or three hundred meters away from us. We were feeling the music and lyrics because we're practically living them. People are killing each other for territory.You've seen the film's promo, I suppose? Bashar Haroun says that someone might blow himself up among us. That was considered because it happened before: A girl was having a birthday party, and someone blew himself up in there, and that was a birthday party—not even a metal concert.
This is probably a stupid question, but what’s the reason behind suicide-bombing a birthday party?
Different agendas that I—like everyone else—fail to see, I guess. An explosion occurred in my neighborhood back in 2012, taking the lives of many people I considered dear. Someone blew up a ton and a half of explosives there. Fifty-two people died, many of them children. It's difficult to comprehend.
Were you nearby at the time?
No, but I should have been in my house. Something happened to keep me from being there. A lucky coincidence, I guess. Had I been there, I wouldn't be telling you this story right now.
On Facebook, you said you’ve had a lot of lucky escapes.
I've survived four explosions and lots of clashes so far. The last of them was in Salamiyah’s countryside, where I was supposed to meet with my bandmate to record the guitars for a song he wrote; I postponed the trip because he was going to Homs that day.
Do you and your fiancée have plans for the future? Do you think about leaving Syria?
That’s a really difficult thing to even think about. I can’t live outside Syria, but one day I will have nothing left to stay for, so I will be forced to leave. But currently, I really can't live outside of Syria.
I’m used to all of this mess! The crappy streets and those people who hate me because I’m a metal head… I freaking love them! I really do, and I am used to them. I find inspiration here.
I can’t explain it. I’m used to Syria with all of its mess, ugliness, and now ruin… It has a certain charm over me.
In the film promo you say things have been dark for a long time in Syria. What was it like growing up?
That’s a tricky question… Before the war, we weren't exactly alive. As youngsters, we were a little behind on everything in the world, and we strived to change that; we strived to live like everyone else. I don’t want to get killed. I just want to finish the film, and then, anyone's free to do as they please; kill me, bomb me or whatever. The film is what's important now.
It means that much to you?
It’s my passion. As I said, I’ve been through everything these people and bands have suffered from. Anyone can make a documentary about music and war, but it’s hard to put feeling into the film, to reflect emotion. And I believe I can do that, because I know how everyone felt through the war.
Did the political uprisings in Syria have an impact on the music?
For the bands that emerged in the new wave of Syrian metal, yes. The atmosphere was a big influence on them. The clashes, the death, and the ruin—all these things would inspire any metal musician!
How did you first get into metal?
I was young and frustrated with the organizers at a programming contest I took part in for kicking me out because I was simply wearing shorts. My friend gave me his headset and said, “Just listen to it; it'll make your anger vanish.” I thought he was kidding, and I thought the song was going to be a happy or a crazy song, but it was Metallica's “Battery," so when I got back home I searched for this kind of music. I hadn’t realized that my teacher who taught me the piano and the oud, who was 75 years old, had a small shop and Metallica cassettes. I never expected that—he loved Metallica! He died a few years ago, and now that I remember that, I wish I had been older just so I could have talk to him and gotten to know him better. I was only a kid back then.
What kind of music do most people listen to in Syria?
Mostly icky, overproduced, and recycled music—and sometimes really interesting folk music. Generally, people listened to music all around; they loved music! This bigotry and hate toward music in all of its genres, and even its banning in a few places in Syria, is something definitely not Syrian, nor did it originate from a Syrian mindset.
From there how did you find out about the metal happening in Syria?
The first Syrian metal song I listened to was recorded in Damascus in a small shop. I have no idea who played or recorded it, but it was amazing. It was a death metal track. I’m currently looking for the band because I wish to meet them. After that, I started to discover relatively more known bands like Nu.Clear.Dawn, the Hourglass, and Ominous.
You’ve just come back from filming in Beirut. How was that?
I went there a week ago to interview the musicians in diaspora. It went pretty well, except for the part when I got stuck in a clash in Tripoli between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al Tabbaneh. It’s following me everywhere!
Did it make you feel at home?
Yeah, it was a relief.
Do you have any idea of when the film will be finished?
The situation controls the outcome, so I can’t really tell. When I started filming, I had a whole script that I'd written for the film—the bands, questions, and my vision of the finished product—but after filming in the first city, I ripped that script in half because everything kept changing. Maybe I won't be able travel to Damascus today; maybe someone will die; maybe some bomb will take new lives; maybe I'll die. Nothing's for sure. I try to keep updating those interested through the film's Facebook page, though.
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