Lebanese band Slave to Sirens take the Glastonbury stage and, using their unique brand of badass thrash metal, they fire up the crowd of… a dozen people. Normally, an up-and-coming underdog band reaching an iconic festival such as Glastonbury would be the inspiring finale of any film, fiction or nonfiction, but in Rita Baghdadi’s vérité style documentary Sirens, this moment takes place within the first 30 minutes to accentuate the many obstacles yet to be faced by the young musicians. This is because Sirens is more than the story of an all-female Middle Eastern thrash metal band trying to reach the top. It’s a portrait of Lebanon and a love story.
The opening shots of riots and anti-homophobia graffiti in the streets of Beirut are followed by Slave to Sirens taking the stage and headbang their way to a successful local concert. Early on, Baghdadi is pointing at how these two threads are unavoidably interwoven.
The film seems unfocused in its first twenty minutes and Baghdadi struggles to make us care about the band and their future. There are rehearsals, talk of censorship in the media, and some slightly interesting family interactions, but it’s not until we get into the personal lives of Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, founders of Slave to Sirens, that the documentary starts to coalesce and lifts off towards something truly special.
We spend time with Lilas and her girlfriend Alaa, a Syrian girl she met online; it’s a beautiful relationship that seems destined to be just a fantasy given that same-sex marriage is forbidden in Lebanon and it wouldn’t be easy for Alaa to leave Syria. Meanwhile, Shery shares her anxieties for the future; uncertainty lingers over her and the unpopular style of music she has chosen to pursue. We soon learn about her own past with Lilas.
The personal struggles of these girls are connected to the social and economic landscape of Lebanon where laws try to restrain their identity and society actively tries to stop women from breaking traditional behavior. To accentuate this connection, Baghdadi intertwines the turmoils and frustrations in the lives of Lilis and Shery with footage of increasingly violent street riots. And just as the tensions rise to a fever-pitch temperature between members of Slave to Sirens, the deadly 2020 Beirut explosion takes place, sending the whole country into chaos. Baghdadi captures the titanic chilling blast from a rooftop and then masterfully uses Sirens’ music to illustrate the sense of destruction and helplessness.
Sirens amplifies the voice of a group of young badass Middle Eastern women fighting for art and love in the middle of a harsh social and political landscape that seems to put every type of obstacle in their way. And the brilliance behind Baghdadi’s directing is that she doesn’t explicitly explain how Lebanon’s situation hampers the life of Lilis and Shery, instead, she allows you to connect the dots and see how, through little actions, comments, and disappointments, these girls have to jump through additional hoops to find normalcy in their lives and relationships.
But in the middle of the grim outlook, Sirens shines bright as a gorgeous and hopeful story of love and sisterhood. A clash between Lilas and Shery turns into longing, regret, and eventually the need for reconciliation. The voice of the people in the streets rage louder as the bandmates’ friendship grows stronger, and Baghdadi captures a miraculous piece of footage to embody it all: Lilas and Shery calmly chat about their social life in the street while a huge mob slowly approaches around them, eventually drowning their chitchat about partying and sex with loud chants demanding the fall of the regime. Because as long as love persists and people keep fighting, maybe change can finally come. If not, we can always rely on the only form of expression we all seem to agree on: the power of music.
Sirens had its World Premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival where it’s competing in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. You can follow Slave to Sirens on Instagram (@slavetosirensband) and YouTube.
Cover image: Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, founders of the all-female Lebanese thrash metal band Slave to Sirens, as seen in the documentary Sirens, directed by Rita Baghdadi. Image courtesy of Rita Baghdadi.
But in the middle of the grim outlook, Sirens shines bright as a gorgeous and hopeful story of love and sisterhood. A clash between Lilas and Shery turns into longing, regret, and eventually the need for reconciliation.