Sirens (BFI Flare Review): Rock ‘n’ Roll in Lebanon
Sirens is an enjoyable documentary about Lebanon’s only all-female, queer heavy metal band, following them as they overcome political unrest and personal tensions.
Music has been a prevalent theme at this year’s BFI Flare Festival. Sublime followed two adolescent musicians in Argentina, whereas one of the main characters in Isabel del Rosal’s superb Walk With Me is a budding singer-songwriter. Then there is the vast array of music documentaries that have been showcased. From Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music and Fanny: The Right to Rock, The Sound of Scars, right down to the excellent Charli XCX: Alone Together. Now, from director Rita Baghdadi (and executive producers Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph) comes Sirens, a documentary about Lebanon’s only all-female, queer heavy metal band.
Rhythm guitarist Lilas Mayassi, lead guitarist Shery Bechara, vocalist Maya Khairallah, bassist Alma Doumani and drummer Tatyana Boughab are the quintet known as Slave to Sirens. Their uniqueness has already earned them headlines and articles – the band read one of them at the start of the film – but they really want to make it big. Baghdadi follows them as they begin work on a new album and head to the UK to perform at the iconic Glastonbury. All whilst battling obstacles ranging from the traditional patriarchy, the tense political situation in Lebanon, riots in the capital Beirut and personal tensions.
Even though they are on the fringes of the album covers, the film’s primary focus is the relationship between Lilas and Shery. They are the band’s two guitarists – and, as it turns out, are also ex-girlfriends. They met at a protest, with sparks instantly flying, and they kept their romance a secret from their bandmates. Then they broke up, and Lilas fell in love with a woman living in Syria. Now their creative battles are dominating the band dynamic. Shery is the main songwriter for the band and, therefore, the main artistic force. However, Lilas can be more vocal in her disapproval. They are failing to keep to the tempo – literally and figuratively – with the other band members watching on, almost powerless to stop this gigantic rift from widening and widening. And eventually, these tensions will come to a boil.
There are other challenges the group must face. Glastonbury is a disappointment for them, as they find they have only attracted a meagre crowd for their set. It’s a mortifying reveal at first, though the band win them over by the end. Yet, as they return home and more people take to the streets of Beirut to call for revolution, the political backdrop becomes more evident. Lilas tries to move away from her traditional expectations placed on Lebanese women – much to the dismay of her mother. Slaves to Sirens must also fight religious and governmental restrictions. After all, how can they express their music when festival organisers ban them because they don’t want metal? The political issues in Lebanon may not be as important, but they are still focal. Near the end of the film, Lilas and Shery are talking as the camera slowly moves and picks up a demonstration against the government. It signifies how the political and personal are side-by-side here.
For a non-retrospective documentary, Sirens is perfectly plotted. It’s like an episode of Behind The Music only with the band’s future ahead of them, making it more interesting and in the moment. Furthermore, Baghdadi (who is also the cinematographer) has been given a backstage pass to the band, listening in to jam sessions and arguments as a fly on the wall. As a result, she maps a journey that starts with the band together and harmonious, then shows emotions becoming more frayed before ending with rebirth and growth. There is also a fair sense of drama away from the band drama. Footage of the humongous, devastating August 4th explosion blows you away with a wall of sudden noise – and ripples through the rest of the film.
Sirens does feel incomplete in places. For instance, it would have been great to know more about the other members or follow them around. Especially lead singer Maya, whose death growls are as impressive as her ever-changing hair colours. And the chronology of the film is a bit scattered. It could be because of COVID or the situation in Lebanon, but there are some large, inconsistent leaps forward in time. There are power cuts throughout the film in Lilas’ house and during band practice. They hint at another concern for the Lebanese people; however, the film chooses not to cover that as thoroughly.
Nevertheless, Sirens is an enjoyable documentary about the obstacles a band must face and a sisterhood that is challenged but strengthened. The story of Lilas and Shery works surprisingly well, and the geopolitical context grounds the film and gives us more reason to sympathise with the girls fighting against tradition. Because in a genre that just 1% of the Lebanese population listen to, Slave to Sirens is striving strive for liberation and free musical expression. It may be a niche genre, but as one member says, it is “the only outlet for us to be who we want to be without any limits.” To that end, Rita Baghdadi shows there is hope for acceptance with a concert where Lilas and Shery perform Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ alongside an orchestra. And there is hope for friendship and mutual ground – where you can walk into a dark tunnel and be together, no matter what is on the other side.
Sirens was screened at the 2022 BFI Flare Film Festival on 24-26 March, 2022. The film will be released on October 7 at Laemmle Royal (LA), followed by a nationwide release.