Documentaries about rock’n’roll bands are hardly the rarest of movies on the festival circuit, but Sirens is something rather special… yes it tackles the ups-and-downs of aspiring to make it as rock icons, and yes there are fights between band members, but the fact that Sirens charts the story of the Middle East’s first all-female thrash metal band makes it rather unique, especially set against the fragile political landscape of Lebanon.
Largely focussing on the tempestuous and complex relationship between Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara the two guitar-playing co-founders of band Slave to Sirens, it is a film that tackles music, friendship, sexuality and identity as these young women set about following their dreams of becoming thrash metal stars.
Headstrong 23-year-old guitarist Lilas Mayassi lives with her mother and younger brother on the outskirts of Beirut. She teaches music to school children by day and by night, she’s desperately trying to keep her thrash metal band together. What makes things all the more complex – given the long, deep and intense relationship she has with Shery – is that she’s secretly falling for a young woman living across the border in Syria.
The band – made up of Lilas, Shery, Maya Khairallah, Alma Doumani and Tatyana Boughaba (the other three don’t have quite the on-screen profile of Lilas and Shery, which feels a shame at times) - are ‘discovered’ by Earache Records and get invited to the UK to play Glastonbury, the world’s largest music festival, where Earache have soundstages. But despite their initial excitement and enthusiasm, the show isn’t a life-changer they were hoping for and after returning home to Lebanon Lilas starts taking her frustrations out on her band, specifically Shery, who else sense her long friendship with Lilas is being forgotten or diminished.
Against the backdrop of revolution in Beirut, the complicated friendship between Lilas and Shery begins to fracture and Shery decides to quits the band (and tearful and tense moment captured fly-on-the-wall style in the film) and suddenly they are left without their lead guitarist and someone who brought her own brand of soul and poetry to the band.
Later in the film Shery admits that she and Lilas has a relationship – “..we felt electricity…it was like adrenaline..” – but Lilas didn’t want the other band members to know. “After that she started liking girls and pushing me away.” The film features footage of both Lilas and Shery mournfully playing guitar (in very much non-metal fashion) with the tacit – if often unspoken – admission that they need and complement each other as both musicians and as friends.
In the end, the film is a film about Lilas she must decide what kind of leader she will be, not only for her band, but also as a young woman struggling to define herself in Lebanon. As the city is rocked by the port explosion in 2020 (there is a brief piece of footage that reminds just how awful and powerful the blast was) so it helps to provide a platform for a possible reunion as the country is joined together in grief and in a desire to try and use culture and music to help heal.
Sirens hits a familiar series of documentary beats at times, but there is warmth and compassion here as Rita Baghadi really gains the trust of the band as they let her into their lives through moments of rock’n’roll highs and desperate lows as they start to doubt if they will ever crack the music scene. But at its heart is the delicate and temperamental relationship between two charismatic talents. It is a generous film that rightly end on an uplifting high despite the challenging complexities of region that is not overly keen to embrace trash metal let along same-sex relationships.
Lebanon-US, 2022, 78mins
Dir Rita Baghadi
Production Animal Pictures, Lady & Bird, Endless Eye, XTR
Producers Rita Baghadi, Camilla Hall
Cinematography Rita Baghadi
Editor Grace Zahrah
Music Para One
With Lilas Mayassi, Shery Bechara, Maya Khairallah, Alma Doumani, Tatyana Boughaba
(First published in Business Doc Europe)