Lebanese female metal band subject of new documentary at Sundance Film Festival

'Sirens' by Rita Baghdadi follows Lebanese duo Slave to Sirens as they form a music career in a country struck by crisis

Lilas Mayassi, left, and Sherry Bechara, founders of the all-female Lebanese thrash metal band Slave to Sirens, as seen in the documentary 'Sirens' directed by Rita Baghdadi. Photo: Rita Baghdadi
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Sirens, the new film from award-winning Moroccan-American filmmaker Rita Baghdadi, was unveiled in the documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival this week.

Ostensibly, the film is about Slave to Sirens, the first self-styled, all-female thrash metal band in Lebanon.

While much of the film is taken up by the on-off relationship of the band's two most prominent members, Lilas and Sherry, the film is so much more than that.

It looks at the changing gender norms in Lebanon, as more women choose careers over marriage; a time when it's possible to decide to get on stage and pursue three chords and the truth.

In the years that the metal band were making a name for themselves and touring the underground scene of Beirut, Baghdadi was in America moving from cinematography to directing.

She directed No Country No More in 2018 and City Rising, which won the LA-area Emmy award for Best Social Film.

Rita Baghdadi, director of 'Sirens'. Photo: Jeremiah Hammerling

While her own career was on the up, it did not stop her from getting frustrated by the representation of Arab characters on screen. She felt that the characterisations she saw in the cinema misrepresented the Arabs she saw around her in America and the Arab world.

The director knew she wanted to make a documentary about changes in the Middle East and North Africa.

"My goal was to make a film about the region from where my family is from that didn't focus on war and the bad things happening," she says. "I wanted to show real human beings with lives that people all over the world could relate to; that really was one of my missions."

When she heard and read about Slave to Sirens in 2018, Baghdadi contacted the band through Facebook, saying she was interested in making a documentary about them.

At the time, Slave to Sirens had just released an acclaimed EP, which led to Glastonbury, the world-renowned British summer festival, inviting them to play. The band felt like they were going places.

The documentary starts with the musicians' excitement at playing Glastonbury, which they believe will be a life-changing event. But while the event was terrific, there was disappointment when the band went back to their everyday lives. The experience pushes the band to breaking point.

My goal was to make a film about the region from where my family is from that didn't focus on war and the bad things happening. I wanted to show real human beings with lives that people all over the world could relate to
Director Rita Baghdadi on making 'Sirens'

A couple of days before the world premiere of Sirens, The National spoke with Baghdadi and band members Lilas and Sherry on Zoom.

As a result of the pandemic, the festival went online-only this year, but that didn't deter them from meeting up in Los Angeles and hosting their own premiere party where the band played.

Baghdadi reveals that she connected with Lilas on Skype, asking: "What do you think about me coming to visit and hang out for a little bit, and maybe do some filming?"

"Everyone was down," she says. "I went to Beirut and stayed with Lilas for a week, and that was the start of everything."

Lilas says speaking to Baghdadi was "really comfortable. We shared common ideas and were like-minded. Rita was so lovely and friendly. It felt like a win-win situation, with nothing to lose".

"At first, it was kind of weird to have the camera following you around," says Sherry. "We were not used to that. But Rita was so heartwarming and really fun."

The film uses music and the band to look at more significant social issues.

"It was a tricky deciding what parts of the events unfolding in the country to include in the film," Baghdadi says. "I always knew going into this film that I was stepping into a complicated situation with economic collapse, revolution and corruption in politics, and then the explosion happened, and we had to think about how to navigate all these things."

The Beirut blast in August 2020 caused at least 218 deaths, left more than 7,000 injured, created $15 billion in property damage and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.

Baghdadi believes it also led to an unconscious collective change, where the citizens decided that they had enough of the years of bureaucratic mismanagement. She felt that this moment also made people feel more forthright and less scared of discussing issues previously swept under the carpet.

"It was a big moment, a sort of loss of innocence for the band and the young people in Lebanon," says Baghdadi. "It felt like there was no going back from this moment. I saw a change in the girls, especially Lilas, which I thought I couldn't ignore, and I wanted to portray it in the most sensitive but raw and dynamic way.

"It gave some context and backdrop as to why the characters were feeling the way they were feeling."

And the result is the film that Baghdadi wanted to make. "A film that challenges the stereotypes, particularly western, of what it's like to live in the Mena region," she says.

Sirens is playing at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs until January 30

Updated: January 28, 2022, 9:12 AM