Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A fascinating watch." | Photo: Courtesy of Inside Out

Who are Slave To Sirens? They’re introduced by an article in Revolver magazine which we see them reading to each other during the opening scenes of Rita Baghdadi’s documentary, laughing uproariously as they do so. An all-female metal band from Beirut, they comprise singer Maya Khairallah, guitarists Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, bassist Alma Doumani and drummer Tatyana Boughaba. They’ve been playing together for several years and have a distinctive, fully developed sound, but Lebanon doesn’t provide the most welcoming environment for more challenging forms of artistic expression, so they haven’t enjoyed the success they might have had elsewhere. Nevertheless, they have made their mark, and this film follows them through major career events as well as internal strife which threatens to end what they’re doing for good.

Whilst most music documentaries spend a lot of time on singers, Maya fades into the background here, with the film focusing first and foremost on the guitarists, the two big personalities driving the band. Creatively they work together well, but there’s a complication: that intense energy between them is partly driven by unaddressed desire. Shery expresses her frustration to camera: she developed feelings for Lilas, Lilas started avoiding her, and then started pursuing relationships with women. Shery is angry, but struggles to articulate why. Lilas has a lot of thinking to do as she comes to terms with her queer identity and reassesses Shery’s behaviour. Questions over what their personal disagreements mean for their professional relationship create a powerful drama at the heart of the film.

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There’s much more besides. An invitation to perform at Glastonbury is the stuff of dreams, but the reality proves much more challenging. It isn’t easy trying to tune instruments and get into the right mental space in a tent with other people’s music constantly pulsing through it. They take it in their stride when introduced on stage by a woman who gets their name wrong in two different ways, and really put everything into their performance, but an early slot means that they’re playing to a tiny audience. Impressively, the lesson they take from it is that they have learned how to handle a big stage, and it won’t be the last on which we see them perform, despite attempts to censor them at home.

There’s a suggestion that, in Lebanon, intense displays of emotion – perhaps especially from women – are seen as problematic. If they played pop music, they’re told, they could be very successful. Yet sometimes the ferocity of metal is the only proper response to circumstances. In an extraordinary piece of footage, a single camera perspective captures the warehouse explosion, on 4 August 2020, which devastated a large portion of Beirut. At first it seems large but limited to just one small cluster of buildings, sending a thick black plume of smoke up into the sky; then there is a second blast, sudden and devastating, impacting everything we can see. After this, everything looks different.

The natural response of the two guitarists, who first met on a demonstration, is a longing to restore their friendship - that other kind of love which remains, powerful yet still more difficult to articulate, even when romantic possibilities have been and gone. Everybody is shaken, frightened, angry at the bureaucratic failings which allowed the incident to happen. Music which can articulate those feelings is needed like never before.

A largely observational documentary, made over several years, which just happens to capture all these important moments, Sirens is a fascinating watch. The brooding, wounded Shery and the forceful Lilas, both of whom we also see navigating family issues and traditional expectations of how their lives will pan out, have a great deal to say, whilst the band’s music speaks for itself. You will be left wanting to listen to more.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2022
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On the outskirts of Beirut, Lilas and Shery, co-founders and guitarists of the Middle East's first all-female metal band, wrestle with friendship, sexuality and destruction in their pursuit of becoming thrash metal rock stars.

Director: Rita Baghdadi

Year: 2022

Runtime: 79 minutes

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