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‘Sirens’ Review: Rita Baghdadi’s Stirring Documentary Shines a Hearty Spotlight on Middle East’s Only All-Female Trash Metal Band

'Sirens' passionately unravels a moving tale of feminine camaraderie, rivalry and sexual awakening against the backdrop of Lebanon’s ongoing political unrest.

Sirens

In the opening moments of “Sirens,” nonfiction filmmaker Rita Baghdadi’s intimate and vibrantly filmed portrait of the Middle East’s first and only all-female trash metal band, two members of the ensemble casually hum in unison, trying to perfect a tricky piece of rhythm. Playfully headbanging and air drumming, they’re having palpable fun through this moment of nourishing artistic process. And yet, there is also the slightest crumb of one-upmanship as well as sexual tension in the air, one that Baghdadi subtly hints at before going on to thoughtfully exploring its layers in her compact film, which premiered in the World Cinema Documentary section of this year’s all-virtual Sundance.

The two young women are the candid Lilas Mayassi and relatively more reserved Shery Bechara, the rhythm and lead guitarists of their nearly 7-year-old Beirut-based band Slave to Sirens, which includes three other equally charismatic musicians: drummer Tatyana Boughab, vocalist Maya Khairallah and bassist Alma Doumani, all clad in black-heavy clothing, some sporting a range of artful tattoos and psychedelic hair colors. While the quintet could star in their very own Middle Eastern “Almost Famous,” the latter three members seem like supporting characters here. Indeed, Baghdadi’s main subjects are band co-founders Lilas and Shery; the duo’s rousing friendship, respective hardships and complicated chemistry make up the bulk of “Sirens” after the filmmaker establishes the intricate society in which they’re struggling to exist and make their art. On the one hand, Lebanon is a small yet diverse country, we are reminded, housing liberal values, distinctive communities and beliefs as well as a culturally inclusive stance within its borders. On the other, it remains quizzically conservative in certain aspects, with a sizable portion of its population hostile to the performers’ unconventional style and choice of music, labeled as satanic even in some of the more politically progressive parts of the world.

But what are the young women to do if not ignore the vile internet commenters calling them “sluts and whores” and persist with their art as an outlet for their act of resistance? “Metal is about pure, 100% sacrifice,” one of them says in a profound moment. And that philosophy seems to guide the group’s every step while it stubbornly rehearses, performs, attends anti-government protests and speaks up for civil causes like LGBTQ rights against the backdrop of an unsteady country’s ongoing political unrest. Though her perceptive camera is alive to cityscapes, street life, sunsets and dimly lit bars and concert venues (she doubles as “Sirens'” cinematographer), Baghdadi captures something inspiring about the members’ collectively magnetic exuberance. What she unearths is a kind of enthusiasm that overcomes harsh realities, from power outages that frequently interrupt a bustling city (as well as band practice) to a mostly empty concert arena when the group briefly travels to the U.K. for a modest gig it had high hopes for. (“What matters is that we were happy on that stage,” one member concludes with sweet hopefulness.)

Lilas and Shery are at the heart of the filmmaker’s multilayered yarn, with their respective stories of coming of age and sexual awakening moving in tandem in ways both harmonious and fractious. Still, Baghdadi chooses to focus more on the pair’s commonalities, a deep yearning for feeling heard and understood being chief among them. Working a side gig as a music teacher, Lilas especially seems to have a tough time with these needs, often clashing with her traditional mother, who insists that her 20-something daughter live at home until she gets married and has children.

Smartly building an intriguing narrative, the film takes a little time to reveal the romantic nature of Lilas and Shery’s joint past, a relationship that had apparently blossomed in secret before Lilas moved on, fell for a Syrian woman across the border and started to push a confused Shery away. Throughout “Sirens,” the conflict between the two intensifies, compelling Shery to reconsider her future with the band as a result. The devastating Port of Beirut explosion of August 2020 emerges in the last act of the film, feeling like a ruptured emotional artery amid all the existing uncertainty. “Home doesn’t feel safe; friendship doesn’t feel safe; love doesn’t feel safe,” we hear from an exasperated Lilas in one of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments of “Sirens,” wondering if the future will hold a freer and more hopeful reality for the group.

And yet, Baghdadi refuses to surrender to a doom-and-gloom atmosphere, underscoring optimism through the women’s shared sense of purpose as they pursue a meaningful place for themselves in their society. She is so committed to that searching spirit that you forgive her occasional heavy-handedness behind the camera, which makes some scenes seem more rehearsed than candid. After all, what lingers in the aftermath is the powerful pull of her “Sirens,” reminding one in its rawest moments what against-the-odds resilience looks like.

‘Sirens’ Review: Rita Baghdadi’s Stirring Documentary Shines a Hearty Spotlight on Middle East’s Only All-Female Trash Metal Band

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (online), New York, Jan. 15, 2022. Running time: 78 MIN.

  • Production: (U.S.-Lebanon) An Animal Pictures, Lady & Bird, Endless Eye production. Producers: Rita Baghdadi, Camilla Hall. Executive producers: Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Natasha Lyonne, Maya Rudolph, John Boccardo, Dave Pell, Kathryn Everett, Bryn Mooser, Derek Esplin.  
  • Crew: Director, camera: Rita Baghdadi. Editor: Grace Zahrah. Music: Para One.
  • With: Lilas Mayassi, Shery Bechara, Maya Khairallah, Alma Doumani, Tatyana Boughaba. (Arabic, with English subtitles.)