This weekend, Northwest Film Forum is screening several films—including this one!—as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's Satellite Screen program. Learn more about the program here.
At first glance, I expected Rita Baghdadi's Sirens, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival this week, to be a conventional documentary about a darkhorse band with big hopes of making it big. As the only all-female metal band in Lebanon, Beirut-based Slave to Sirens is certainly an underdog if there ever was one. However, from the jump, the intimate and irresistible Sirens subverted my expectations of what a music documentary could be.
For starters, its first big set piece follows Slave to Sirens as they travel to the United Kingdom to play a stage at the famed Glastonbury Festival. By any measure, that opportunity is a pretty huge deal. Sure, they mostly play to dead grass with only a couple dozen people wandering over to lightly headbang to the band's brash music. It's a major moment that other documentaries might have built up to, but it's not what Baghdadi is interested in.
The bulk of the film explores the dynamic between two members of the band: Shery and Lilas, Slave to Sirens' guitarists. Quiet, observant Shery has lip piercings and long straight hair that falls in her face when she shreds the shit out of her v-shaped guitar. Passionate Lilas, on the other hand, is prone to mood swings, stomping off to her tent thinking their Glastonbury performance went poorly. Musically, both guitarists flow with one another, but their relationship as bandmates starts to fray as they secretly reel from a romantic breakup the rest of the band doesn't know about. Drama mama!
What I love is that Baghdadi really sits back and lets her subjects unfurl their world in front of you. She's there watching Lilas Skype with her new girlfriend she met in Syria. Sitting in the passengers' seat as Shery drives (and drinks!!) to a bar where she hits on a hot woman. It's an intimate, fly-on-the-wall approach that feels lived in and immediately made me invest in the two as people.
Charting Lilas and Shery's separate reactions to their breakup says volumes about how these two queer metalheads navigate a society that largely believes women should be demure and straight. Still, the doc could have benefited from more context about gay acceptance in Lebanon. Baghdadi similarly juxtaposes personal moments with anti-government protests that regularly fill the streets of Beirut and footage from the deadly August 2020 explosion. These moments are shown but never properly explained, serving as little more than mood-dressing for the rest of the film.
The focus on the intricacies of Shery and Lilas's relationship also sacrificed what could potentially have been a just as interesting story about Slave to Sirens being the only all-female metal band in Lebanon. We hardly get to know any of the other band members or understand how they met and decided to form a metal band. What inspired them? Who are their fans? What's the metal scene like in Lebanon anyway? With a title and logline that suggested a story encompassing all five bandmates, these were all questions I wondered as the credits rolled. And with just over an hour runtime, I think there was certainly time for the filmmakers to bulk up their subject.
As the Hollywood Reporter pointed out in their review, there are some big names associated with Sirens: Natasha Lyonne, Maya Rudolph, and former Netflix vice president of original content Cindy Holland all served as executive producers on the film, stacking the odds that it'll likely get distribution. But beyond the big names, Sirens has oodles of appeal. Shery and Lilas are enigmatic and compelling figures to watch on screen and you're rooting for their friendship. Who knew metal could be so soft?
Sirens will play at Northwest Film Forum on Friday, January 28 at 6 pm. More info here.