Sundance 2022 Film Review: Sirens ★★★★

Rita Baghdadi’s feature documentary Sirens, which world premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, is a nuanced, intimate, and upbeat portrait of Lebanon’s only all-female thrash metal band, Slave to Sirens. Although it opens with footage of protests on the streets of Beirut with chants of “revolution” and shots of graffiti with phrases like, “homophobia is a crime”, Baghdadi’s focus for the first third of the film is introducing the band and giving us a sense of its history and the dynamics between the five members, rather than Lebanon’s uneasy social and political state.

Cut with a pace and an energy that captures the passionate spirit of the band by editor Grace Zahrah, it’s a refreshing, stigma-busting look at the country through the lens of these young women as they establish their identities that go against the grain and strive to build their careers in a place where there’s a lack of venues and a limited audience for their brand of music. As we’re given an engaging insight into the band’s creative process through fly-on-the-wall composing session and rehearsal footage, it’s clear how residual, generational scars from the country’s civil war and recent events, like the devastating Port of Beirut explosion in August 2020, feed into their music and performances.

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.

We spend most of the film’s running time with founding members, rhythm guitarist Lilas Mayassi and lead guitarist Shery Bechara, following Lilas most closely. The two have a romantic history with one another, and although both have moved on in their dating lives by the time we meet them, some unresolved issues linger which start to complicate band life as we witness in some increasingly tense songwriting sessions. Baghdadi, who takes on much of the cinematography herself, clearly earned the trust of these young women and is patient as they begin to open up about themselves. We never get the sense that she’s forcing or manipulating what happens on screen, just there to capture it unfolding.

Lilas being filmed in lesbian bars, talking about making out with women, and allowing the cameras into her home when a girl she is dating travels across the border from Syria to visit would be exposing under any circumstances, but given that she lives with her mother in the suburbs of Beirut, it feels particularly brave. As a caption informs us, “Article 534 of the law is vague. It says that any sexual relations that ‘contradicts the laws of nature’ is punishable by up to one year in prison”. In spite of this, although understandably circumspect when necessary, we see Shery and Lilas beginning to live more openly and boldly as queer women. Meanwhile, we don’t get to know much about the other Sirens, bassist Alma, vocalist Maya, and drummer Tatyana, outside of their time in the band.

Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, 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.

Pre-pandemic, we follow the Sirens to Glastonbury when a rare opportunity to perform internationally comes up. Taking in the crowds and atmosphere at the festival’s world famous Pyramid stage, we then see the band open their potentially career-changing set to an empty field, without so much as tumbleweed in the air. Before long though, there’s a small but appreciative group of Glasto headbangers getting into it. Throughout the film, Baghdadi only gives us sparing flashes of the band performing, which serve to convey their considerable musical talent and stage presence without being potentially off-putting to non-metalhead viewers whose ears might not being able to take too much of their intense sound. Not much of a mettaler myself, I did find myself wanting to hear more and immediately downloaded their 2018 EP Terminal Leeches, which I’m nodding along to as I write.

When it comes to other music in the film, there’s a beautifully poignant score by frequent Céline Sciamma collaborator, composer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier aka Para One, which makes for a striking contrast to the band’s output and helps to bring out the emotional layers. Frequently visually stunning, the interiors have a raw vertité style while there are some breathtaking shots of natural beauty in the nearby mountains; sunsets, vividly coloured flowers, and underwater camerawork, along with gorgeous behind the scenes tableaux of the band on photoshoots.

Ultimately, as the end credits rolled, it was the band’s creative talent and perseverance to succeed that stayed with me, and I’m excited about the potential of this film—produced by Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph’s Animal Pictures—to introduce them to a wealth of new horn-signing, headbanging fans, even unlikely ones like me.

By James Kleinmann

Sirens world premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and was one of our LGBTQ+ highlights of the festival.

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