Rita Baghdadi’s new documentary Sirens might nominally be about the Middle East’s only all-female thrash metal band, but its heart can be found in the relationship between its two primary subjects: guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara. The two met at a riot, Mayassi recalls in the film, and the electricity between them felt instantaneous. They immediately bonded over music.
Sirens, which debuted this week at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, captures a band in flux. After Mayassi and Bechara founded Slaves to Sirens, they initially kept their connection a secret from their bandmates. The detritus of their now-defunct romance has begun to erode the group’s cohesion by the time we meet them—a major problem considering, as one man notes later in the doc, an all-female metal band in Lebanon doesn’t have many replacement options when someone quits.
The tension between dreams and reality, spirit and society, permeate every layer of Baghdadi’s impressionistic film. Personal narrative and genres like road and war documentaries interweave as Mayassi, Bechara, and their bandmates struggle to find their definition of success in a society that was not built to appreciate their work. But make no mistake: This is not another stereotypical work that casts Arab women as meek victims of repression. It’s a rallying cry (well, scream) for self-determination and rebellion.
Another paradox that underpins Sirens: the experience of oppression at the hands of a regime in collapse. At multiple points, we observe conversations (often on the news) about the criminalization of homosexuality. A programmer calls Slaves to Sirens to apologize for canceling their performance because they were not allowed to schedule metal bands. Mayassi’s mother looks at her child with a mixture of awe and worry—fears born out of an intergenerational trauma that provides much of the film’s emotional backdrop. She needs to know where her 25-year-old daughter is going at all times and whether she’s arrived safely.
Baghdadi sets some of the film’s most intense visuals to the Sirens’ music—from protests in the street to the devastating 2020 explosion in Beirut. The band frequently practices through power outages, and at one point, a bank can only allow Mayassi’s mother to withdraw $100. Mayassi says her country has been “fucked up” since her grandparents’ generation. But she insists, “I don’t want to live in fear.” The band, she says, is the “only outlet for us to be who we want to be without any limits.” But that doesn’t stop trolls from labeling the musicians “sluts” and “whores,” and the band itself “an abomination.”
Viewers will likely find themselves wishing Sirens included more contextual information about some of the moments we see. The band’s gig at England’s Glastonbury Festival, initially framed as a source of excitement, comes and goes; Mayassi seems disappointed with how the show turned out, perhaps because so few people attended. But without much insight into what her and her bandmates expected from the performance, the moody guitarist's disillusionment feels opaque. We briefly observe Mayassi teaching music to children at her day job, but the significance (or perhaps insignificance) of that work to the artist herself never really comes across.
At a certain point, however, the band’s story gives way to the broader human story underneath—especially as the lens shifts its focus to Bechara.
Mayassi describes Bechara as her more “melodic” counterpart, a distinction Baghdadi occasionally underscores by capturing her dreamier subject in bursts of sunlight. At one point, Bechara gives Mayassi an incense set for her birthday, along with a handwritten note that reads, “A special flower grew next to me in the soil, I call her Lils. We grew side by side, got our roots tangled, and it made me merrier. May you find serenity with every light, smoke, and scent.”
None of the Sirens seem to have much use for religion—unless it’s chanting “Hail, Satan!” through laughter—but there’s a spiritual side to Bechara that complements Mayassi’s tumultuous moods. (Even if she, like her bandmates, often feels misunderstood and doesn’t quite know what she wants—for the band or for herself.)
Baghdadi is telling two stories here: one politically specific, and one universal. The revolutionary backdrop in Lebanon clearly informs these musicians’ work and the relationships they’ve formed with it. But their angst is also emblematic of the emotional cacophony many of us feel in our mid-twenties, as we begin figuring out who we are and what we can do in a world bent on limiting our self-actualization and expression.
When Bechara chooses to leave the band, her reasoning is more personal than practical—a result of the rifts all friends and certainly former lovers experience from time to time. Ultimately, however, a reunion feels inevitable because, if nothing else, of the rare sense of empowerment these musicians have found in one another.
Mayassi’s journey toward self-acceptance as a queer woman provides the film’s emotional spine. She and Bechara kept their romance secret in part, it seems, because she didn’t feel comfortable discussing it. Mayassi describes her relationship with a Syrian woman with similar pessimism: “It's all fantasies,” she says. “She won’t be able to get out of Syria anyways.” In the end, however, she and Bechara are able to reconnect with honesty—a conversation about dating in which Mayassi, having internalized a few lessons from her rift with her best friend, seems to have gained a new sense of self-love and optimism.
Toward the end of the doc, Mayassi muses that we’re all enslaved in a way—to money, to war, to society. “Home doesn’t feel safe,” Mayassi says after the explosion in Beirut. “Friendship doesn’t feel safe; love doesn’t feel safe.” But Slaves to Sirens feels like an answer to that upheaval and subjugation, a screaming encapsulation of these young women’s dreams and defiance. And Sirens, for all its concert footage, feels like a story about love more than anything else. Not the fictional, heroic sort of love that “conquers all,” but the kind one grows over time for oneself—and for those capable of seeing and appreciating us for who we really are.