"Death Metal Angola" opens with intimate, handheld shots of an Angolan man, Wilker Flores, playing a six-string and breathily snarling into a mic in front of dim-lit stucco wall. This image, which both confirms the typical heavy-metal image and complicates it, is followed by a description of Angola’s tragic and tumultuous post-colonial history and recurring violence. And so, the cultural aspects of the death-metal genre and its significance to the southern African nation becomes palpable as director Jeremy Xido synthesizes this harrowing and necessary documentary.
The movie focuses on a rock festival forming in Huambo, the capital province of Angola, and the people who are orchestrating it, as well as the activity inside Luanda’s Okutiuka orphanage where Flores, the death-metal aficionado/musician we meet in the first scene, and his girlfriend, Sonia, work. The civil war (a reaction to the Angolan anti-colonial uprising against Portugal in which two major rebel factions fought for control of the country) lasted more than 27 years, resulting in nearly 800,000 casualties, and displaced roughly four million people from their homes. Sonia, after giving a very graphic, detailed account of the devastation she witnessed, states that this unprecedented surge of anger transferred quite fluidly over into death metal, an aggressive outlet for self-expression.
The film grants well-deserved attention to bands such as Neblina, Dor Fantasma, Before Crush, Black Soul, and Nothing 2 Lose (all of which are headlining the Huambo rock festival). Sonia and Wilker, both avid death-metal fanatics who are also co-orchestrating the festival, follow suit and do whatever they can to impart their fascination of this genre onto the orphans, encouraging them to creatively utilize their anger. When the concert finally takes off, the reactions of the audience, most of whom have presumably never seen a show this dynamic and explosive before, is stunning. One middle-aged man after Dor Fantasma’s set can’t stop screaming “We need this! We need this! Rock is my fucking life! I can’t control my emotion, I can’t control myself!” The film ends a year later; the festival has become a huge success, garnering an even larger turnout than its predecessor.
Documenting cultural influences on a musical subgenre can often be touchy and tilt toward the exploitative, sensationalizing the actions of specific people rather than giving proper attention to sensitive issues, but "Death Metal Angola" remedies this. The subjects here are not outliers but rather people and bands who represent a larger resentment that citizens of Luanda, Huambo, and Benguela feel. Its cinematography echoes David Gordon Green’s "George Washington" in its masterful alternation between stoic, ruminative narration and transient shots of dilapidated buildings and chalk textures of rubble, all while faint distortion from an amplifier hums in the background.
One of the few frustrating things about the documentary is it doesn’t have enough emphasis on the bands featured in the Huambo rock concert. The necessity of structural change in Angola is an (understandably) integral cornerstone to the film, but once you listen to Before Crush slay a track that it's rehearsing, you want to hear and see more.
Regardless, "Death Metal Angola" is the ode to death metal that the world needs. Frenetic yet graceful, it maintains a respectful distance from the subject matter rather than being pushy and self-indulgent (a characteristic that many modern documentary filmmakers lack). There is a pulse behind this music that yearns for corporeal understanding, and Xido gives us just enough of it, leaving it up to the viewer to explore further. At one point in the film, one of the Okutiuka orphans points to a mural on one of the walls that reads “Nos somos futuro,” meaning “we are the future.” Maybe it’s not the brightest future for Angola, but perhaps Xido’s film will make it a little brighter for a new generation of death-metal fans.