Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Oscilloscope releases the film in theaters on Friday, September 30.
It’s hard to imagine any metal band ever had as much to be angry about as Slave to Sirens, the unlikely subjects of Rita Baghdadi’s dynamic new documentary “Sirens.” Based in the outskirts of Beirut, it’s safe to say the five-woman thrash metal band is the first of its kind in Lebanon, let alone the Middle East. Even if you’re not a huge metal fan, you can’t help but bop to the screeching vocals and thrumming guitar riffs, if not in pleasure then in amazement at the sheer moxie of these young radicals. Moroccan-American director Baghdadi, who also lensed the film, centers character in her storytelling to craft an engrossing and humanizing narrative. With the band’s headstrong co-founders leading their tale, “Sirens” is a powerful reminder that punk isn’t dead if you know where to look.
“Sirens” opens, naturally, with a head-banging metal show. Donning black spiral eye make-up and shredding on their Flying V axes, Slave to Sirens plays to a packed crowd of Beirut’s riotous youth. After the show, a shaggy-haired fanboy collects autographs and a photo. “I hope you get somewhere,” he gushes. “You guys are really inspirational.”
Of course, making it in the music industry is hard enough in stable democracies, let alone a country in the midst of a revolution. And as one mentor reminds them, metal isn’t terribly popular in the Middle East, despite what Slave to Sirens’ dedicated following might think. “Since the day my grandparents were born, this country’s [been] fucked up,” says Lilas, the band’s passionate and stubborn guitarist who becomes the film’s central figure. “But I don’t want to live in fear.”
Lilas is the only character we visit at home, where she hides her interest in girls from her mother. The women joke lovingly with each other, sitting on the couch in their modest flat. At 25, her mother is eager for Lilas to settle down with someone beside her. “I don’t want someone beside me. I am beside me,” she tells her mother in an increasingly aggravated pitch. “Slowly, slowly. We will get rid of that mentality,” her mother replies.
Lilas is cagey about her history with the band’s lead guitarist, the prolific lead songwriter Shery. They both admit to feeling an immediate, intense chemistry when they met, though only Shery is forthcoming about their feelings they once had for each other. When Lilas couldn’t accept those feelings, she pushed Shery away, and tensions have been simmering beneath the surface ever since, threatening to interrupt the band’s progress.
An invitation to play at England’s prestigious Glastonbury Festival seems to indicate their star is on the rise. They pore over concert tapes in preparation, like a sports team reviewing plays, giving each other notes on which head movements will play on a big stage. “That’s what Iron Maiden does,” says Shery, to which Lilas replies, “One day.” But when the day comes for the gig, it’s heartbreaking to see the sparse crowd gathered for their midday set. Their infectious energy eventually draws more onlookers, but it’s clear the gig won’t be the big break they had hoped. They lug their gear past the lines of cars to return to Beirut.
Hiding her girlfriend from her mother takes a toll on Lilas, and she plunges further into alcohol and moody outbursts. After one too many harsh critiques of Shery’s new songs, Shery announces she’s leaving Slave to Sirens, raising tempers to levels befitting a metal band. “You know the problem with an all-female band? You don’t have reserves,” their mentor jokes. But Lilas knows Shery can’t be so easily replaced.
Baghdadi foregrounds the band’s struggles against Lebanon’s political turmoil, treating it as omnipresent background noise, the way many Beiruters probably experience it. A cacophonous Slave to Sirens track erupts wrenchingly into footage of the Beirut explosion, which physically shook the entire country and caused over 200 deaths in August,2020. This is the only time Baghdadi lingers in the more familiar (at least in the West) images of the Middle East; billowing plumes of smoke, hazy yellow skies, trucks carting debris, decrepit buildings ripped open.
“Home doesn’t feel safe. Friendship doesn’t feel safe. Love doesn’t feel safe,” Lilas confesses. The friendship part, at least, she can remedy. When Lilas and Shery meet up towards the film’s conclusion, they discuss dating and girls and a recent wild night out, shouting over protests passing by. That old chemistry jumps off the screen, as loud as the throttling shriek of their songs.
“Sirens” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.