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Premiere: Sundance Film Festival 2022
Director: Rita Baghdadi
Producers: Rita Baghdadi & Camilla Hall, Co-Producer: Tatiana el Dahdah
Production: Animal Pictures / Lady & Bird / Endless Eye
An inspiring and touching documentary about SLAVE TO SIRENS, Middle East’s first all-female thrash metal band.
As the documentary hits rock bottom, Bassem Deaïbess, activist and frontman of Beirut thrashers BLAAKYUM says some simple but wise words to his good friend Shery Bechara, lead guitarist and main songwriter of SLAVE TO SIRENS, Lebanon’s first and only all-female thrash band, which describe both the virtue and the core problem of her band: “Metal is about 100% pure sacrifice. You know what the problem is when you’re an all-female band? You don’t have any reserves. When male bands fight with one guitarist, they just get another one.” Even in Lebanon, a country with a small but dedicated metal scene, things work like that. The five SIRENS, however, are completely dependent on each other, especially considering their ambitious goals to make a living from their music, even becoming rock stars. Rita Baghdadi’s profound documentary about the inner and outer struggles of the five young women at various turning points of their lives as private individuals, as a band and as a nation takes us into the reality of the Middle East we usually don’t get to see like that …
But it is not the naïve dreams of some self-absorbed girls that this touching and thrilling film illuminates, but the only realistic chance for the five young women to escape a politically torn, economically decaying country shaken by corruption and unrest, which cannot offer them – all of them with a university education! – any real professional and personal prospects, as the traditional women’s image does not envisage self-determination, self-realisation and and the renunciation of the usual role of wife and mother. Therefore they concentrate on their music, sacrifice everything for it and try to work as professionally as possible, against all odds and without any outside support. Metal doesn’t really play a role in the daily life of the Middle East (besides regular arrests for alleged Satanism….), extreme metal in Lebanon only takes place in the absolute underground and is practically cut off from the worldwide scene, which is mostly equally conservative and only now beginning to take an interest in bands outside the western world. In Lebanon, labels or recording studios aren’t set up for anything other than pop or oriental and Arabic music, and would not be able to record metal music, so only within the very active scene people do support each other – but that scene almost exclusively consists of men, like it is in a conservative and religiously influenced country. Additionally, the criminalisation of metal fans, who were accused of Satanism, cat sacrifices and orgies in the 1990s, leading to numerous raids and imprisonments, still has an effect today, and is preventing the best venues from booking metal bands to this day.
Against all odds
In many ways, the young women are left to their own devices, they are living in the wrong place at the wrong time – and with the wrong gender, or as Shery’s father puts it: “I know you want more in life … but if you were in a pop band, you would have been much more famous. … Your style is not supported here. Here in the Middle East, you are the 1% that likes thrash metal. These are your disadvantages. You did not get the opportunity to shine more.” The girls stand out with their black clothes, band shirts, leather, tattoos and piercings, they are outsiders, which, however, only welds them together even more. The five musicians live in a society that discriminates against them for many reasons – because of their unconventional style and appearance (e.g. when Shery walks past them, two female joggers make the sign of the cross and call on the Virgin Mary for help…), because they are women in a male domain and because they are queer, and live in an extremely conservative and religious society in which freedom of expression has become very unstable after all the years of civil war. Even the artistic treatment of LGBTQ+ issues, let alone corresponding activism, is seen as blasphemy, criminalized and met with death threats, as happened to the now defunct Lebanese indie band MASHROU’ LEILA, which for many years spoke out against societal problems in the Middle East and became a voice of the Arab LGBTQ+ scene. SLAVE TO SIRENS also had gigs cancelled as soon as venues realise they are playing metal. ‘SIRENS’ thus is a prime example of theming intersectional discrimination against women, in which sexism, homophobia, chauvinism and general distrust of those who think differently reinforce each other, thus depriving women of the chance to live their true selves without social repression.
“My parents always tell me that theres no future here. It’s a dog eat dog world. I feel misunderstood a lot. Without music, I dont know how to express how I feel.“Shery Bechara
The musicians, too, are committed to fight the corrupt government and social grievances; the film repeatedly shows the current political situation in Beirut, in which demonstrations, water cannons and increased military and police presence in the streets are commonplace. Interestingly, this was also how the band came into being: Lilas and Shery met in the middle of a riot, the two twenty-somethings recognised each other as metal fans, and immediately asked each other what bands the other listened to – and soon after, they started jamming and writing songs together (Metal as fuck, right? How many other bands can boast such a foundation story?). The two guitarists complement each other perfectly, the quiet, mysterious Shery brings in her more melodic ideas, whereas the dominant Lilas is mainly responsible for the riffs and rhythmic expression, but both inspire each other strongly. They search for equally talented band members, and find the singer Maya Khairallah, who for her first time tries to growl with SLAVES TO SIRENS, as well as the experienced bassist Alma Doumani and impressive Tatyana Boughaba on drums; together they start recording their first EP ‘Terminal Leeches’ – with very technical, demanding thrash in the best political tradition of the genre. All of them had experience in bands with men before, but it’s the all-female band SLAVE TO SIRENS that is their thing, here they can finally be who they really are, express what is moving them and also stay true to their sexual orientations, at least to the extent that their inner struggles do not completely disrupt the band structure…
At the time documentary filmmaker Rita Baghdadi contacts them, especially the two guitarists must decide what they want for their future; and how the SIRENS as a band deal with all these internal and external challenges is the subject of this very cleverly edited film, which often makes you forget that it does not follow a script – it develops so true to life and the protagonists reveal so much personal, also controversial, even intimate information, not only to each other, but at least to the whole world.
This requires great confidence and trust in the film team around Rita Baghdadi. The cinematographer, director and producer is known for her intimate, characterful and socially committed documentaries, she has an American-Moroccan family background herself, and has long been annoyed by the way Arabs are demonised and belittled in Western film productions, and how the entire South/East Mediterranean region is seen as an enemy country. She wanted to counter this cliché with a film in which young women from the Middle East could recognize themselves in the reality of their lives, their hopes and dreams, as it would have been so important to her in her own youth overshadowed by 9/11. When she meets and befriends Lilas, the opportunity to realise this goal opened up for her:
„A film where Arab women could be the stars of their own story, and not the victims in someone else’s. Where Arab women could scream, curse, thrash, and talk openly about sexuality without being sexualized.“Rita Baghdadi
With her all-female team, consisting of producer Camilla Hall and co-producer Tatiana el Dahdah as sound engineer, Baghdadi accompanied SLAVE TO SIRENS over several years, focusing on band leader Lila Mayassi and her complicated relationship with lead guitarist Shery Bechara, as well as with her mother, with whom she and her brother live – in a room with purple walls and Flying V’s painted on them. Lila’s personal development within and outside the band, whose members are all friends with each other and maintain strict discipline in their own rehearsal room, is the thread on which the events, be they private, band-related or political, are strung together – as everything is connected. With her distanced, observant and completely unbiased view of the life of her main character, who has to free herself from social dogmas and restrictions, but also from her own value system, in order to find herself and thus personal satisfaction, Baghdadi succeeds in creating a projection screen for countless young women who, like Lilas and Shery, struggle with wanting more than what their environment has planned for them.
„Anytime a woman wants to be anything other than what society wants, it is always an issue”Lilas Mayassi
We watch them at rehearsals that end as soon as the power fails again, at impromptu photo and video shoots, at home practising and hanging out with friends and families, at Lila’s work as a music teacher and also at protests. When Earache Records offers them to play at the renowned Glastonbury Festival in 2019, from that moment everything is only focused on their first foreign gig, SLAVE TO SIRENS prepare for it by analysing their stage acting, even practise in the tent the night before – only to face a handful of hungover people on a small side stage the next day. While the rest of the band is nevertheless enjoying the experience, band leader Lilas, who had dreamed of a big breakthrough, is extremely disappointed. Back home in Beirut, the tense situation between her and Sheri escalates and the future of the band is at stake…
When on 4 August 2020 an uncontrolled explosion of almost three thousand tonnes of ammonium nitrate occurred in the port of Beirut, killing more than three hundred people, leaving many thousands injured, making around 300,000 people homeless for a long time and triggering a renewed economic decline, this inconceivable catastrophe traumatises the entire country for at least a lifetime. Its indescribably horrific images of suffering and destruction are cinematically transformed by Baghdadi in a way that is both sensitive and drastic, and in combination with some surreal live scenes of the band, they reach down to the core of what metal is all about – setting the terrible, barely nameable into music in such a way that it becomes bearable. These events and the resulting insecurity cause a cathartic change in Lilas’ thinking, and thus make way for a new beginning for the band.
“We live in this cycle of fear, and our band is the only outlet for us to be, who we want to be, without any limits.”Lilas Mayassi
‘SIRENS’ is an incredibly courageous feminist coming-of-age film that provides intimate insights into the lives, thoughts and feelings of the protagonists, who counter their reality between constant revolts, war, unemployment and social repression with their endless creativity, hard work, sisterhood and lofty dreams, and thus create the necessary perspectives for a fulfilled future with their music. When Shery and Lilas finally perform in the Bacchus Temple in Baalbek during the big, TV broadcasted benefit concert for the victims of the explosion disaster, it becomes clear that they have stepped out of the shadows of invisibility right into the limelight.
Rita Baghdadi has managed to give an impressive and resonant insight into the reality of young Arab women with an unpretentious, technically outstanding film of quiet tones (and a perfectly fitting score by Para One!), in which the most important things happen in subordinate clauses or in scenes completely without text, completely stripped off the clichés of Euro- or US-centric mainstream cinema. In ‘SIRENS’, you can witness how much all those involved have grown and developed through working together, and that is surely the most beautiful reward for so much openness and vulnerability offered by the main characters. It To watch this gem is a must, not only for every real metal fan! Mainly film festivals (like the Munich Dok.Fest, link to stream here) offer the opportunity to do so, so just follow the social media profiles below – and be blown away by the power of sisterhood!
“Since the day my grandparents were born, this country is fucked up. War, instability, unemployment. All this pain, all this rage, there’s something were running away from… but I don’t wanna live in fear!“Lilas Mayassi