Six years ago, anthropologist Sam Dunn made the unusual switch from studying Guatemalan refugees to starring in his own film about long-haired, leather-clad, head-banging rockers.
To the 30-year-old Canadian, however, the jump made perfect sense. After all, he's been a die-hard fan of heavy metal music since he was a teen-ager.
The result of his and co-director Scot McFadyen's 5-1/2-year quest to explore what they call "the culture of heavy metal" is "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey," a documentary that takes an anthropological look at the genre by exploring its links with violence, sexuality and religion.
The film is scheduled to hit movie theaters in cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Salt Lake City in the coming weeks and will be released on DVD at the end of May.
The film's aim, according to Dunn and McFadyen, is to explain why heavy metal, a style of rock music made popular by bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Slayer and known for heavy guitar riffs and controversial lyrics, has been maligned by critics while its millions of fans across the globe have been stereotyped as violent or Satanic.
Dunn, a long-haired, skinny redhead, serves as the film's narrator and main character, something he was initially skittish about but found was true to the anthropological practice of observing cultures through participation.
"You grow up as a metal fan, it's the music that you love," Dunn said in a recent interview, adding that the film "forced me to see (heavy metal) through a different lens than just as a Slayer-obsessed teen-ager."
Indeed, Dunn's mild, thoughtful manner as he travels to heavy metal festivals and conducts interviews with his musical idols appears to embody the film's central message that heavy metal fans are misunderstood by mainstream Western culture.
"There were always more fights at frat parties than metal shows when I was growing up," Dunn said. "Metal is about a release. It's a catharsis, it's an emotional form of music, so that is something that is just often overlooked."
The film tracks heavy metal's origins in the 1970s with Black Sabbath and highlights several popular sub-genres through interviews with metal icons like Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson as well as newer, underground stars like Angela Gossow of Sweden's Arch Enemy. Gossow is one of just a few female metal singers who uses a low-pitched, guttural singing style known as "death grunts."
More importantly to Dunn and McFadyen, however, the film explores heavy metal's obsession with violence and religion. It seeks to break down stereotypes that the filmmakers said have lead to bans of heavy metal albums and lawsuits that accused bands like Judas Priest and Slayer of driving fans to suicide or murder.
For the most part, the musicians and fans interviewed in the film deny that the genre advocates Satanism or violence, saying those themes are part of an act.
In one scene, Tom Araya, lead singer of the thrash metal band Slayer, chuckles when asked about the title of the band's 2001 album, "God Hates Us All," saying the aim was to catch people's attention.
In one of the film's most dramatic chapters, however, Dunn travels to Norway to explore the link between a heavy metal sub-genre known as Norwegian black metal and a string of church burnings in the early 1990s.
In an interview, black metal musician and convicted church burner Jorn Tunsberg says he has no remorse for having burned down a church even after serving prison time.
For their next project, the filmmakers are taking on "the globalization of heavy metal," according to McFadyen, and plan to explore the genre's popularity in places like Indonesia, Brazil and Morocco.
But all of this is not taking Dunn away from his anthropological roots: he plans to return to university in Toronto for his PhD. The subject? Heavy metal, of course.