Art is one of the first tools of protesters. It appears in the form of protest tags, signs, and banners. It appears in clothing, philosophy, and in song. In 1987, Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Socarrás made an AIDS awareness poster using an inverted version of the Nazi’s purple triangle and the phrase “Silence=Death” to make a clear point about what not talking about AIDS was doing within the gay community. In 2015, artist Dread Scott updated the text from an N.A.A.C.P. flag previously flown from 1920 to 1938 to read “A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday” in reaction to the death of Walter Scott. Songs like Marven Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” protested the Vietnam War, while Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” protests general authoritarian control (though inspired by the 1992 Rodney King case), and Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover’s “This Is America” speaks to the rampant violence against and cultural appropriation of the American Black community. When all else seems to have been taken from you, all that’s left is your voice and what you do with it. Director Rita Baghdadi’s documentary Sirens follows thrash metal band Slave To Sirens’s co-lead guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara over the course of an undisclosed period during a series of civil protests in Lebanon as they face various interpersonal and professional struggles against the backdrop of revolution. Intimate and raw, the boiling personal frustrations of Mayassi and Bechara are juxtaposed by Baghadadi against those of Lebanon’s people, building to a point of either breakthrough or total dissolution.
For those less in the know, thrash metal first hit the music scene in early 1980s, popping up in the U.S., U.K., Latin America, and Germany, born out of heavy metal and known for its more extreme aggression and fast tempo. It’s not as dark as death metal and not as radio-friendly as regular rock (Aerosmith) or metal (Metallica), featuring complex guitar riffs and drum beats which require high skill and nimble dexterity. Like most industries still shifting, heavy metal is primarily a man’s game, so a group like Slave To Sirens stands out for several reasons, the most visible being that they are an all-female band established in a country where social mores lean more toward the traditional. Through Sirens, Baghdadi presents what’s under the surface, the insecurities and the doubt, as well as the drive which inspires them to create music, taking audiences on a journey from the band’s first major gig at Glastonbury 2019 to the creation of their first album. Though the focus of Baghdadi’s Sirens is on the band, she uses Lilas and Shery as a means to explore differences in class, social norms, and sexual acceptance.
Separating herself from more traditional documentary filmmakers, Baghdadi captures moments in the lives of Lilas and Shery within the context of the group, as well as outside, in order to present a holistic view of the burgeoning thrashers. By being thrown in with them, Baghdadi requires audiences to just go with the flow, creating an atmosphere that’s simultaneously filled with spontaneity and confusion. We don’t learn anyone’s names, for instance, until about 4 – 5 minutes into Sirens when Shery reads an article about the band to the fellow members, creating an organic moment to learn the names of at least two members. The downside is that we don’t learn the names of anyone who isn’t directly identified, but this method necessitates that the audience shift their expectations from a traditional band doc into something smaller, narrow in approach, large in scope. This largeness comes from the inclusion of intermittent images of various civil protests around Lebanon, making for the first thing we see, setting a hell of a tone for what follows, especially as Baghadadi makes sure to include graffiti tags declaring homophobia as a crime. Unless otherwise shown or discussed, the revolution around Lebanon isn’t the primary focus and is therefore not strictly examined or included, but it is a prominent player in the documentary, becoming a representation of the struggle for acceptance Lilas seeks with her sexuality, particularly when compared to Shery’s total comfort. It’s not overtly discussed, but the framing of scenes certainly implies a disparity, whether it’s the obviousness of the ways their parents respond to their respective daughter’s sexuality (Lilas’s mom appears unaware, while Shery’s Dad (or father figure, it’s unclear) appears totally aware) or their home lives (Lilas’s seems cramped and of lower income, while Shery’s seems more spacious and wealthier). Being aware of these things as an audience helps clarify the slowly appearing rift between Lilas and Shery as caught on camera, making their conflict about as dramatic, even if presented within a glacial context, as the struggle occurring on the streets of Lebanon. Whereas any other band, should a falling out occur, can just recruit a new member, the Sirens require not just someone who can keep up with the other band members, they need someone with a specific skillset to handle the requirements of thrash, not to mention possessing the same wavelength of the other members. This truth creates the potential for a fallout that would take the band with it, if it’s not remedied.
Where there’s struggle within Sirens is in the structure and focus. Very little is offered regarding a timeline, so it’s difficult to understand the chronology of events solely based on what’s put in front of us. It becomes especially tricky as vocalist Maya Khairallah often appears with her hair dyed different colors from scene to scene, so it’s difficult to judge if something we’re seeing happened before, after, or around another moment. This doesn’t even get into the fact that while the documentary is about the Sirens, it mostly focuses on Lilas and Shery, meaning that we’re not really introduced to or get to know the other members of the band. This allows for a rather interesting exploration of ideas regarding gender and sexuality amid generational conflict in the midst of a cultural revolution, but we do finish the documentary feeling like we learned absolutely little about this (first and only) all-female thrash metal band. Even as the horrific August 2020 port explosion is caught on camera, occurring at a time when the band itself is shown struggling with its own divided line, we don’t so much see a direct correlation between the event and reconciliation so much as it happens and then past issues are rectified. The intent may be to presume that the aftermath of the terrible event inspired hatchets to be buried, but it’s never spoken of in any kind of clear manner, so it’s all supposition on the part of the audience. Though things do move quickly throughout the 78-minute documentary, had Baghdadi spent some time securing the timeline a bit and perhaps allowed us some insight on the band as a whole, one might finish Sirens feeling like they knew a bit more about the situation and band on a wider scale than just the co-lead guitarists.
Even though there’s a lot to be desired about Sirens, there’s no denying the talent present in the band members, whether we know their names or not. Their music, though not for everyone, comes from such an organic and honest place that it’ll inspire others to either seek them out or, perhaps, create their own music. Their first EP was released in 2015 and the first single, “Salome,” from their upcoming album was released earlier in 2022. From this, we know that the Sirens are alive and well, continuing to work toward their dream of stardom. Perhaps with a little help from Baghadadi’s Sirens, Slave To Sirens will move from the side stage to the main in no time.
Screening during the BAMcinemaFest 2022.
For more information, head to the official Sirens BAMcinemaFest webpage or Sirens website.
For more information on Slave To Sirens, head to their official Facebook page.
For more information on director Rita Baghdadi, head to her official website or her Sirens webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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