‘Death Metal Angola’ Review: A Quiet Film on a Loud Subject

Death Metal Angola

Following its independence from colonial Portugal in 1975, Angola erupted in a civil war that lasted decades, destroying the country’s infrastructure and defining a generation haunted by memories of violence and scarcity. It is against the backdrop of this memory of war that the Angolan death metal scene arose as both a community-forming distraction from and a cathartic outlet for the harsh experiences its everyday citizens have witnessed.

The narrative outlined above is the framework that artist/activist/filmmaker/performer Jeremy Xido has fashioned for Death Metal Angola, and it provides an assessment of the relationship between social hardship and musical culture that is delicately balanced throughout. Rather than explain the Angolan death metal scene as explicitly political in terms of the meanings of its songs, Xido contextualizes the musicians and supporters that make up the heart of its subject as people finding strategies for living in a nation whose culture has been nearly evacuated by decades of instability.

Beyond title cards that explain the greater socio-historical context, as well as the geographic layout of the country and names of certain bands, Xido’s camera and influence are content to observe without exhaustively explaining Angolan death metal’s cultural importance or narrative of emergence. Rather than a comprehensive understanding of how hard rock historically developed within this context, the film provides a glimpse into a musical scene that is vastly important to its participants and fans, but never in exclusively political or social terms. Rather, the film situates Angolan death metal as multi-functional, perhaps most importantly as a vessel for expressing feeling and building communities.

As such, Death Metal Angola rightfully belongs amongst a small group of documentaries about the utility of rock music in non-western contexts, like Omar Majeed’s Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam and Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Yet the specific contribution of Xido’s ironically quiet take on its subject matter is that it doesn’t prescriptively fuse a relationship between the musical and the political. Death Metal Angola is content to observe its subject’s varying effects on their proponents and practitioners.

The film is organized around the creation of a rock music festival in Huambo, a city that has been particularly devastated — even hollowed out in the way it’s represented here — by decades of war. Bands from across the country come together in, beyond technical snafus in this grassroots event, a joyous, conflict-free convention of hardcore music. For any skeptic of the importance, artistry and benefit of music as raw as this, Death Metal Angola is a corrective №1. Various characters espouse different ideas about the music’s relationship to the war, the history of African music and Angola’s war-ravaged vacuum of culture, and Xido’s camera seems to privilege no perspective over others. Through Xido and co-cinematographer Johan Legraie’s widescreen frame, the everyday lives of young male Angolan musicians is portrayed as a tableaux, a place frozen in time, in which this particular moment — around the organization of this festival — is viewed as exemplary of Angola’s relationship to rock as a whole.

If any serious criticism can be leveled at the film, its that its perspective is so narrow that it doesn’t provide any glimpses into life outside of this genre of music and its relationship to the past. We see suggestions of everyday troubles — one affecting episode about a boy who runs away from home stands out in particular — through brief moments, but only as they intersect Angolan death metal. There is no sense of the current political state of the nation or the greater roles of other social categories as they intersect with music. There are seemingly no female rockers within this scene, for example. Perhaps this modestly scoped perspective is the price Xido pays for taking an observational approach and keeping his temporal frame limited. But the glimpse that Death Metal Angola does offer is a rich and respectful portrayal of hardcore music as a revitalizing vessel.

Death Metal Angola opens in theaters this Friday.