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Metal: A Filmmaker's Journey

A grad student gets schooled in documentary film

By Jen Wareham

To create Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, the rookie filmmaker joined forces with long-time friend Scot McFadyen to write and direct a documentary that blends two of his greatest passions: music and cultural studies. With 96 minutes of interviews, concert footage, history and analysis, Dunn and McFadyen scored a success when their foray in to filmmaking was chosen for the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

“It’s a road movie that follows a metal fan/anthropologist around the world to understand the impact that heavy metal has had on our culture over the last thirty-five years,” explains Dunn who holds a Masters in anthropology from York University.

To hear him describe it, Metal sounds like something a prof would use to pander to his first-year anthropology students. But the modest 32 year-old who narrates and stars in the film isn’t telling the whole story. Metal is also packed with deafening music, mosh pits, and razor-sharp interviews with metal gods like Rob Zombie and Tony Iommi. And best of all, it’s wickedly funny.

In the film, Dunn is quick to dispel any nagging stereotypes that may exist around headbanger culture. That doesn’t mean the film is without its requisite big-hair-platform-shoe-spandex-unitard moments. But from the beginning, he takes a cerebral approach to a genre of music that has come to be associated with Ozzy Osbourne’s reality TV persona.
“I always knew that the guys who play metal are not necessarily the guys who walk around and smash beer cans on their heads. They have families and they go shop for groceries,” explains Dunn. “People have come to associate [Ozzy’s character] with metal, this mumbling buffoon who runs around his house with a neck brace and complains about his dog shitting on his carpet. That’s not metal to me.”

Dunn knows he is not alone. “There has been a thirst among mental fans that there be a film about this music that is a little more fair, that isn’t just a parody of the music.” So, determined to shine new black-light on a culture that helped shaped his identity Dunn picks at metal with the tools of the anthropologist, using tree diagrams to illustrate the history and evolution of the genre. Then he turns up the volume, flashes the strobes, and throws in a joke.

 “I like the music, but I’m not a hard core fan. For that you had to get in to it young,” says McFadyen. The 36-year-old jokes about his friend’s lifelong love of metal, but it is clear he respects Dunn’s loyalty to the music. In fact, creating the documentary was his idea.

At first, making a film was not on the radar for Dunn who was thinking about writing a book on the history of heavy metal. “I asked him, ‘has there ever been a documentary made about metal that reflects what you want to do in a book?’” says McFadyen, but neither man was sure. When they researched it and discovered there was nothing, their journey began.

McFadyen doesn’t candy-coat the experience. “Everything about it was a challenge. Money, writing, filming, getting interviews, editing. Everything.”

But the five and a half year struggle paid off. Since the 2005 premiere at TIFF, the film has been received enthusiastically by audiences of metal and non-metal fans alike at over thirty film festivals around the world.

Steve Gravestock, Associate Director for Canadian Programming at the Toronto International Film Festival attributes the film’s success to its sense of humour. “That sort of almost over-eager grad student thing was really funny,” says Gravestock of Dunn’s narrative role in the film. “[He] gives you a pretty rigorous backdrop of that sort of music.” Gravestock was among the committee of three who selected the film in 2005.

According to Dunn, sporadic shots of blasting metal music are also a big part of the film’s appeal. “People need those moments in a film rhythmically just to let themselves go and decompress because there are a lot of ideas and content in our film.”

With another film in the works, Dunn is certain about the value of sheer determination in seeing a project through. “Looking back, we both kind of stubbornly believed that this film could be done. We just kept on it because we just knew that if we didn’t do it, someone was going to.”

As he approaches his next project, an undertaking he will share with McFadyen, Dunn is reflective about his first adventure. The journey has been a learning experience for him, and along the way he has discovered a new passion to add to the list: documentary filmmaking.

“I find real life more fascinating than made-up life. I think that’s what draws me to documentary. I find the world we live in to be endlessly fascinating and bizarre.”