Written and directed by Rita Baghdadi.
Lilas and Shery, co-founders and guitarists of the Middle East’s first all-female metal band, wrestle with friendship, sexuality, and destruction in their pursuit of becoming thrash metal rock stars.
Moroccan-American director Rita Baghdadi’s (My Country No More) new documentary Sirens certainly doesn’t want for fascinating subjects, as Baghdadi trains her lens on the Middle East’s first all-female metal band, Lebanese outfit Slave to Sirens.
The doc chronicles the travails of ferociously passionate, iron-willed rhythm and lead guitarists Lilas and Shery as they attempt to get signed, go on tour, record their album, and “make it” while putting their progressive messages out into the Middle East and beyond.
It goes without saying that the band’s barriers to success are orders of magnitude larger than any western equivalent. For starters there’s the highly unstable political hotbed that is Lebanon itself, defined by war, widespread economic strife, pervasive conservative values, and entrenched homophobia. Beyond that, the group’s efforts to smash Lebanon’s patriarchy are met with online abuse, namely slanderous claims that the ladies are satanic blasphemers.
Metal is at least a fitting vehicle for Lilas, Shery, and company to channel their rage, and their against-the-odds mission to defy their odious critics makes them incredibly easy to root for. It doesn’t hurt that this intimate portrait paints them as likeable and extremely committed young women.
Baghdadi’s film is one defined by ups and downs; the majesty of getting booked for a gig at Glastonbury, and the disappointment of playing to a near-empty field. But they play with fury regardless, and are pragmatic enough to accept that they’ve still played one of the most iconic music festivals in the world, and that the few people who were there clearly seemed to be having fun.
Basically every success is met by a crushing setback, whether venues refusing to host them due to external political pressure, or even creative frictions within the band throwing album production into a tailspin. It’s clear that Lilas and Shery’s prior romantic entanglement has created an air of tension in the band ever since, one which very nearly threatens to splinter Slave to Sirens permanently.
It all speaks to the enormous challenges of not only creating art amid a war-torn landscape immersed in deeply “traditional” values, but merely existing as a non-conformist – especially if you’re a gay woman who loves thrash metal. Lilas devastatingly states at one point that home, friendship, and love don’t feel safe in Lebanon, and while Baghdadi naturally doesn’t solve any of this by film’s end, her snappy travelogue is at least a winning testament to the enduring spirit of the band and others like them.
Though filmed with an appropriately scuzzy run-and-gun style, this is nevertheless enticingly cinematic-looking at times, even when we’re granted an uncomfortably intimate front-row seat to some of Lilas and Shery’s more intense arguments. The inter-personal drama is cut opposite snazzy concert footage and gritty behind-the-scenes vignettes; Grace Zahrah’s sharp editing reaches its zenith when juxtaposing the permissive Glastonbury atmosphere with the stark expanse of Beirut.
It’s admittedly fair to say that Baghdadi could’ve gone much deeper in exploring both the band and the environment within which they reside, because at 78 minutes her film is only really able to broach its pressing issues at surface-level. It’s more a primer on the subject than a deep dive, but the worthy subjects absolutely carry it over the top.
As a tribute to those who continue to shape art in the face of overpowering adversity, Sirens hits its markers with clarity and compassion. This intimate fly-on-the-wall doc offers a firm tribute to sisterhood and the freedom of creative expression so many of us take for granted.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.