This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 Sundance coverage.
Mixed into the wail of alarms, hiss of teargas and thunderous calls for the fall of the regime in Beirut, another sound is ripping through the night air, and this one comes from the depths of hell itself. Meet Lilas, Shery, Maya, Alma and Tatyana of Slave to Sirens—Beirut’s newest (and only) leather- and mesh-clad all-girl thrash metal band. Rita Baghdadi’s new documentary Sirens is a smartly crafted, hugely entertaining look at the band as it goes through growing pains, fights for bookings, and navigates inter-band dyke drama against the backdrop of a city under constant threat of attack.
The star duo of the documentary are rhythm guitarist Lilas and lead guitarist Shery, who met in the madness of a protest. Though all the members are obviously talented, and there are any number of reasons for certain subjects in documentaries to give or get more access over others, focusing on the originators of the band is a logical and successful choice. Lilas is a 25-year-old perfectionist, a brooding but apt music teacher for schoolchildren, and a young woman who wants to claim her independence outside the household she feels is stuck in the past. Twenty-seven-year-old Shery feels stuck in her own expectations of herself, and in an uneven relationship with her best friend, bandmate, and former secret sweetheart, Lilas. The two have a sparkling, live-wire chemistry that drives the band at its goofy, passionate best, and threatens to tear it apart at its worst.
Before seeing just how relevant that threat is, however, Baghdadi builds the band’s foundation. The camaraderie among bandmates is clear; from getting each other glittered up for performances to giddily shouting “Hail Satan” at the setting red sun to celebrating Lilas’ birthday, it’s easy to fall in love with the band even if thrash metal isn’t your genre of choice.By the end of the film, however, you might be converted, or at least imagine yourself as part of the sparse but enthusiastic crowd at the Sirens’ set in Glastonbury.
Baghdadi’s narrative plotting is so strong, and the subjects so compelling, that moments like these are both heartening and crushing. The Glastonbury gig, so exciting for the band, doesn’t turn out to be the wild international launch they hoped for. Lilas in particular takes the small crowd to heart, her frustration affecting her family (and Shery, especially). Of course, there’s more at play than just one disappointing audience turnout that plagues Lilas.
Alongside the band’s apparent difficulty in consistently booking gigs in Beirut, and trying to convince her mother that she doesn’t need to get married in order to move out, Lilas is hiding a long-distance relationship with her Syrian girlfriend Alaa. Sweet moments over videochat, and montages of beachfront dates are sandwiched by press conferences from other Lebanese bands speaking about the pressure they face to condemn gay and trans people, and the threats they’ve received from the Lebanese government. It sets an understandable tone of fear and secrecy for Lilas, who explains that she’s already carrying the weight of trauma from her parents’ generation.
When Baghdadi captures the deadly Port of Beirut explosion of August 2020, Lilas reflects on how nothing feels safe. “Home doesn’t feel safe. Friendship doesn’t feel safe. Love doesn’t feel safe.” That love and friendship, while apparent in Lilas life, is only a recent stability, and Shery bears the brunt of Lilas’ mistrust and lashing out. Shery’s reflections feel different than Lilas’, captured in some of the more poetic cinematography of the documentary, rather than the fly-on-the-wall approach throughout much of the rest. As the main songwriter and a clear technical master of her instrument, Shery puts everything into her music, and Baghdadi’s approach reflects both that creativity and the unleashing of otherwise pent-up emotions.
It is a shame that we don’t get to know the other members better (especially vocalist Maya, whose hair color changes with each scene), but the push-pull between Lilas and Shery is practically grounds for a narrative feature. Similarly, some of the documentary’s inclusion of Lilas and her mother’s dialogue is so heartbreaking, and some of the shots so overwhelmed with unexpected emotional power, that it’s easy to accept Lilas and Shery as the center of the relatively short documentary’s arc.
If there’s one gripe to be made overall, it’s that the chronological timeline of the band’s success, struggle, and near break-up is somewhat confusing, but it doesn’t take away from the overall impact of five musicians raging against the machine. Sirens is remarkable from start to end—especially as a portrait of queer friendship and expression that mends itself even as everything threatens to literally explode around it. Come revolution or continued resistance, come rain or shine, long live the Sirens, and may their vision of a thrash metal utopia built among the abandoned buildings of Lebanon one day come true.
Director: Rita Baghdadi
Starring: Lilas Mayassi, Shery Bechara, Maya Khairallah, Alma Doumani, Tatyana Boughaba
Release Date: January 23, 2022 (Sundance)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.