This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.
In her screening introduction, director Rita Baghdadi reasoned that she created Sirens, part of the World Documentary competition at Sundance this year, in order to make a film about women in the Middle East that wasn’t just about victimhood or struggle. What emerges in Sirens is a beautifully-wrought and surprising portrait of Lebanon’s first and only all-women’s thrash metal band, Slave to Sirens.
This documentary is not your typical band movie and, frankly, is far better for it. Rather than merely following the group as they navigate the ups and downs of “making it,” with the nitty-gritty of rehearsals and concerts, Sirens homes in on the intricacies of inter-group dynamics and provides a close-up on its subjects’ motivations and inner demons. In particular, the film highlights the relationship between founders and guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara; while we do hear from the rest of the group, including vocalist Maya Khairallah, bassist Alma Doumani, and drummer Tatyana Boughaba, Sirens stays closest to Lilas and Shery.
Without voiceover narration or the intrusive interlocution of an interviewer, Baghdadi manages to maintain an illusion of a camera that merely observes, offering seemingly private glimpses into moments in the band’s journey and into the personal dramas playing out between Lilas and Shery, whose friendship is challenged by personality differences and jealousy. Sirens emphasizes the cohesive strength of the band as a whole—including some footage of their performances—but also shows the ways their music and their ability to play together are affected by the emotional vicissitudes of its members.
Baghdadi manages to maintain an illusion of a camera that merely observes, offering seemingly private glimpses into moments in the band’s journey and into the personal dramas playing out.
They are real people, not actors playing characters, and yet Baghdadi manages to capture Lilas and Shery in scenes that render their feelings, passions, and anxieties clearly—offering a deep insight into their thoughts in a way that’s often difficult to achieve in documentary. Lilas struggles with living at home and argues with her mother about moving out. The film also reveals in bits and pieces, as Lilas negotiates it with herself, that she’s queer. While Shery and Lilas have some kind of romantic association, Lilas’s refusal to tell the rest of the band strains their relationship until Lilas starts dating other women and begins to withdraw from both Shery and the group as a whole.
Protests, political upheaval and civil unrest in Beirut, as well as Lebanon’s anti-LGBTQ policies and socio-cultural resistance to both metal music and women as professional musicians, remain persistent aspects of the film’s backdrop. But Sirens resists becoming a strictly political documentary, instead skillfully revealing the ways citizens who don’t conform find paths toward rich, fulfilled lives—even as they imagine ways their nation could do better. It’s also a paean to the complexities of friendships and how individuals must adjust and accommodate each other within small groups and in larger communities.
Sirens takes a meandering path, cataloging little moments and not always localizing them in time or space. Nonetheless, the journey the film takes us on feels purposeful and enriching. All the moments coalesce toward the end of the documentary into a message of reconciliation, growth and anticipation for good things to come—whether in music or in life.
Editor’s note: Throughout the month of February, Aviva Dove-Viebahn will review 12 films in total from Sundance—six feature films and six documentaries. Explore all the reviews together here.
- Framing Agnes
- Am I OK?
- Tiktok, Boom
- Leonor Will Never Die
- Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
- Girl Picture
- Calendar Girls
- Call Jane
- The Janes