Director Rita Baghdadi’s Sundance documentary, Sirens, follows the thrash metal band Slave to Sirens on their tumultuous journey to make music against the backdrop of a sociopolitically unstable Lebanon. The narrative focuses on lead guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, two out of the five women behind what is, perhaps, the only all-female metal group in the Middle East. The band rocks out fearlessly, head banging and unleashing the force of their music to a small group of people in a large field at England’s Glastonbury Festival. They may not have many spectators, but nonetheless, they put on a spectacle with full force. This freedom of expression is an opportunity they did not have back home, where a booking was dropped because the venue would not allow metal music. 

In the film, Bechara’s father points out that Slave to Sirens would’ve found immense success as a pop band, but they cannot be what they are not. The very act of trying would take away the fight they undertake every day – the same fight that shines through their music. There is, he claims, no real audience for this genre in the Middle East. The documentary beautifully captures the sense of yearning that these women in their mid-20s have to succeed and the ways in which they fight to play their music, let alone allow it to be heard by others. They watch videos of themselves singing, making comments to each other about how best to pose during a performance to maximize audience engagement. Bechara writes to put words to her deepest emotions, and then the band practices this way, giving these feelings their strongest possible voice. 

And then, there is the fight against themselves. Baghdadi explores Mayassi and Bechara’s beautiful creative relationship; one made complicated by their past romantic involvement with each other. Mayassi explores a relationship with another woman, hiding her sexuality from her mother – a woman who wants her to move out only when she finds a man to marry and have children with. “Slowly, slowly,” Mayassi’s mother says, she will convince her daughter of her stance. Whether Mayassi is coaching a girlfriend on how to circumvent a conversation with her mother or making faces as her mother calls demanding to know what time she’ll return home, the tension between the person she wants to be and the one she is expected to be by the world around her explodes onscreen. 

As contention rises between Mayassi and Bechara, the film creates a real sense of uncertainty: Will the band make it? After Bechara quits the group with a WhatsApp text, nobody onscreen knows what the future holds, either. “Home doesn’t feel safe. Friendship doesn’t feel safe. Love doesn’t feel safe,” Mayassi explains as her band – the very thing that holds her together – is at stake. By this point, violence in the world around them is at an all-time high, with homophobia and protests running rampant in half-destroyed buildings and smoky skylines. The film explores the 2020 Beirut explosion in particular, which shakes Mayassi from the inside-out. As Mayassi and Bechara make up and discuss dating in a conversation on the street, protestors begin milling in and fill the frame, bringing the chaos of the outside world into their private conversation.

Despite its occasional choppiness, Sirens harnesses the power of longing beautifully and meticulously. Throughout the film’s 78-minute runtime, the characters yearn. Whether they’re trying to discover themselves, simply be who they are, form and mend relationships, or navigate the rise to success, they turn to music with such fearlessness that it is impossible to look away.

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