directed by Rita Baghdadi
executive producers Natasha Lyonne & Maya Rudolph
starring Shery Bechara & Lilas Mayassi
The sirens of Homer’s Ulysses were malevolent beings who tempted passing sailors to their doom with song. It’s an early example of a male-established trope depicting females as accountable villainesses for events just as easily credited to an innate male lack of self-control. It’s a propaganda campaign in the larger War for the Male Domination of Women.
Beirut, Lebanon, is an ultra-conservative patchwork of largely male-dominated religious, economic, and political interests. It’s also the poster child for the endgame when those interests are inflexible, lacking the necessary empathy, understanding, and patience to find a path to a better shared universe.
It’s against this backdrop of a seemingly failing state—periodic blackouts, despairing economics, and riotous protests that include actual sirens—that Slaves to Sirens, introduced as “The Middle East’s first all-female metal band” emerges. Once this flat, yet crucial introduction is set aside, Sirens drops us full force into the lives of Lilas, Shery, Alma, Mata, and Tatiana, and their passionate aspiration to find a wider audience for their unique voice.
Sirens focuses primarily on the lives and conflicts between the band’s two core and founding members, Lilas and Shery, who met and bonded during a protest. Lilas, a teacher by day, holds a more deliberate, analytical, and theoretical approach to music and the creative process, while Shery thrives on spontaneity and instinct. Together, they are a musical force to be reckoned with. However, their partnership is also imbued with considerable creative tension.
It’s here you would think Sirens would fall into the trappings of typical documentary fare: cameras and microphones roll, and a narrative begins to take shape around hours and hours of footage. Director Rita Baghdadi deftly tracks and weaves several storylines, components, and background elements that seemingly are destined for a formulaic collision course. There are tensions amongst the group, sexuality, family pressures, and indifference. Shery is confronting adulthood and lack of artistic fulfillment, while Lilas, despite the odds, is determined to find, live, and maintain a life of personal truth. This is all set within an oppressive environment designed to fall in and crush them, both physically and spiritually.
Then, on August 4, 2020, during the filming of Sirens, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred in the Port of Beirut, devastating the people of Beirut with mass casualties, homelessness, and devastation.
In documentary filmmaking, this nexus of events could have been exploited as a windfall, and you would expect Sirens’ narratives to rally or fall in the aftermath of such a pinnacle event. But at the juncture moment where storylines seem determined to coalesce, the film does a bit of a hat trick and subverts expectations. Instead of the trajectory of Sirens being defined by this seminal event, the film and its subjects manage to transcend it. Slaves of Sirens resolve and push past their circumstances, not because of tragedy, but despite it.
In a telling moment of the film, following the Beirut Harbor explosion, Lilas and Shery happily reconnect in the streets of Beirut during protests of the government’s ineffectiveness. As they eagerly talk about dates, parties, and music, they are seemingly oblivious as waves of mostly male protesters wash past them. It echoes their first meeting and recommits them to one another and to go wherever the music will take them.
In the film, Lilas asserts that “everyone is a slave. Slaves to love. Slaves to money, society.” Sirens is a documentary that manages to defy being a slave to the narrative. It reads like poetry, poignantly capturing the truth, beauty, and music of not only an extremely important band that, by reason and expectation, should not even exist, but also the truth and beauty hidden amongst the chaos and tragedy in Lebanon. Sirens is a film about unique and important female voices executed with a distinctively female voice.