“When I used to live on the streets, I didn’t know what to do,” a teenage boy sings. “Many wanted to tempt me, others wanted to beat me.”
His song is rough, but it’s music to the ears of Sonia Ferreira, the “mother” of more than 50 orphaned and abandoned children in the war-decimated town of Huambo, Angola. In Angola, a burgeoning heavy metal scene is pushing its way to the public consciousness, with screamed and growled lyrics of pain helping to ease the past horrors of the country’s nearly 30-year civil strife. Ferreira is the ringleader, battling technical and cultural obstacles to bring bands across Angola together for the first national rock concert in 2011 and every year since. By day, she cares for her children in a bombed-out milk factory that hosts her orphanage, Okutiuka. When the sun sets, she listens to her boyfriend, Wilker Flores, rock out on his guitar; encourages young musicians to sing their stories; and dreams of the rise of heavy metal in Angola’s music scene.
A new documentary called Death Metal Angola follows the two orphanage caretakers and their vision of bringing rock and heavy metal to the stage in Angola with a festival of bands from all across the country. The film is the first feature-length documentary for director Jeremy Xido, and is now in theaters and available on iTunes.
Like many unexpected film subjects, it’s the serendipitous result of a career detour, and a strange path for someone who says he once “hated metal.” Xido was working in Angola on a project about Chinese construction workers building a railway when he sat down for coffee and a pastry at a cafe in Huabu, a decimated city far from the capital. A well-dressed young man engaged him in conversation, and mentioned that he was a musician. It was Wilker Flores.
“I said, ‘That’s wonderful, what are you playing?’” Xido recalls.
His response dumbfounded Xido. “Death metal.”
That night, Xido went to see Flores’s show, assuming it was at a local club. The venue turned out to be Ferreira’s orphanage. The music was, as he describes it, “harrowing, beautiful, terrifying.”
In 2011, Xido returned to Angola for more work on his construction documentary, but found himself calling up the orphanage couple when he arrived. “We’re organizing the first-ever national rock concert and you’re going to film it,” they told him. Two years later, Death Metal Angola is readying for its premiere, and the railway film remains unfinished.
Growing up, Ferreira remembers her female family and neighbors beaten and abused by their husbands, and decided she “would never be one of those women.” Then she discovered rock music. “Rock was one of the ways that helped me to fight for my freedom,” she says in the film. She became a schoolteacher, but, as war erupted, began taking in kids abandoned or orphaned by the conflict. In 1996, when 22-year-old Ferreira’s hometown of Huambo came under siege, she was already caring for 55 children. Within two years, fighting was so bad, she was forced to flee. Unwilling to go without her children, she wrangled a Russian plane to fly her and 56 orphans to a beach where they camped for days until they found refuge in a bombed-out shelter.
In 2002, Angola finally found peace, but the 27-year-long war had ripped apart the country’s infrastructure: cities empty, 500,000 dead, and a culture snuffed out. Since then, the country has been rebuilding and recovering. Through the documentary project, Xido noticed that while few people—with the exception of Ferreira—were willing to speak about the war, the musicians could freely tell their stories through lyrics. It was healing for them and the public as well. As one musician described, through their songs “Now [people] will hear music instead of gunshots and bombs.”
Xido, along with a crew of two or three others, filmed the couple over three visits, growing comfortable enough to catch one especially poignant and touching scene as it unfolded. Late one night, as Ferreira sat on the couch watching Flores in a nightly jam session, a young security guard at the local bank brought in a nine-year-old boy, Poncho, who arrived by bus after escaping an abusive stepmother. “She told me, ‘When your dad dies you will suffer a lot,’” the little boy told Ferreira. “Life’s tough, isn’t it?” she asked the boy, who gave a serious nod. And with that, her orphanage grew by one more member.
The Okutiuka orphanage isn’t funded by the government, and subsists on private donations and a mix of embassy-gifted funds. Angola, though one of Africa’s top oil producers, is desperately poor. The last time Xido was at the orphanage in 2012, money was running out and there was only bread to eat for a few days.
For Xido, spending time in war-ravaged Angola felt strangely familiar. The 42-year-old grew up in Detroit as “the only white kid in my neighborhood.” As a child, he worshipped leaders like Malcolm X and remembers having imagining Africa as a mythical place. After spending time in Portugal and Brazil, arriving in Angola—a former Portuguese colony—felt like a mix of the languages, cultures, and landscapes he was used to. In Ferreira and Flores’s resilience and perseverance, he recognized his community back home. “I didn’t go through war, but I lived in a place with a lot of poverty and a lot of gunfire,” Xido says.
As part of Angola’s arts envoy, Xido will return to the country in late November, for a screening and concert in the capital of Luanda. Afterwards, a partnership with the Fulbright Association will hopefully raise enough funds in their crowdsourced campaign to launch a tour of the movie, hitting America’s cities most impacted by economic and natural disaster. And the guy who once thought heavy metal was just “what white kids in the suburbs listen to”? Xido now says he’s not quite a metal-head yet, but it’s growing on him.