‘Sirens’ Review: Arab Women Rockers Come of Age Under Fire

It’s difficult enough to come into your own in your 20s, much less with your country falling apart, your creative life at risk, and your humanity up for debate. But that’s exactly the world in which Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, the heroines of Rita Baghdadi’s documentary “Sirens,” find themselves.

Through breathtaking vérité footage, Baghdadi — who shot, directed and produced — depicts the universal upheaval of youth against a backdrop of unprecedented unrest. As Shery and Lilas navigate their bohemian Beirut lives as members of the all-female metal band Slave to Sirens, the city around them shifts like a sleeping giant.

The result is a documentary so slick it feels more like narrative perfection. Lyrical coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen at Sundance, where “Sirens” premiered at the beginning of the year, but few such films are as impressive as this one.

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Along with their bandmates Maya Khairallah, Alma Doumani and Tatyana Boughaba, Lilas and Shery are searching for their place in the musical world. As Lebanon’s first all-female metal band, they are a rarity within a niche. You would never guess that Maya, their petite singer whose hair color changes almost as frequently as the scenes, could let forth such unholy death growls from her heart-shaped face.

One music festival rejects them outright because they won’t take on metal acts. Later, when discord threatens to break up the band, a friend jokes about how difficult female metal musicians are to replace. Lilas and Shery both lament their distaste for pop.

It goes without saying that Lebanon is not the best place to be a female grunge icon. Lebanon is perhaps the best Middle Eastern country for women, since it does not adhere to Islamic law, but it is still in the nascent stages of gender equality. The social pressures are particularly hard to shake. As Lilas puts it, “Anytime a woman wants to be anything other than what society wants, it’s always an issue.”

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The bandmates are chastised for their skimpy leather stage outfits. Passersby recite a Christian prayer at the sight of Shery, who sports two lip rings and a sleeve of tattoos. These women are outcasts, and their inner turmoil is reflected in their own warring country. As they work to put an album together, protests rage outside. Shery and Lilas actually met at one such demonstration.

LGBT rights are also top of mind in this film. Given Lilas’ reluctance to settle down with a husband and her ambiguously romantic past with Shery, it’s pretty obvious why. As “Sirens” unfolds, Lilas learns to accept herself and finds peace with Shery along the way. Tempestuous and commanding, Lilas teaches music to children by day and drinks herself stupid at night. She lusts after women in bars and reminds her girlfriend not to call her “babe” in front of her mother. Her solipsistic self-torture is, in some ways, indicative of her young age. (In one touching sequence, the band celebrates her 24th birthday.) It is also unique to her environment, where nowhere and no one ever feels quite safe enough.

Early on in the film, Slave to Sirens travels to the UK for a set at a music festival. What at first seems like a big break proves to be just another gig, and Lilas spends the night in a sour mood, unwilling to socialize with the band. Her resentments later bubble up and threaten to fracture her friendships, but she never seems wantonly cruel. Given the turbulence running through this entire film, it’s a wonder all five of these women aren’t volatile lunatics.

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Baghdadi’s most poetic flourish comes when that turbulence reaches its peak. As infighting threatens to end the band, the camera meditates on the 2020 Beirut explosion, which killed some 218 people and physically shook the entire country. A two-week state of emergency and more protests erupted in its wake. Six days after the explosion, the country’s prime minister and cabinet both resigned.

But you don’t need that context to appreciate what “Sirens” is doing. Like all good documentarians, Baghdadi has made a film that grows with its subjects. Her visuals are especially invaluable. Lilas and Shery meet in a Beirut ruin dotted with wildflowers, conveying both desolation and hope. Lilas shows Shery a photo of the girl she’s seeing while protestors flood both sides of the frame. Editor Grace Zahrah (“Copwatch”) plays a vital role, too, cohering these beautiful image into a fulfilling, almost seamless, whole.

In many ways, “Sirens” tells a familiar story. Romance has threatened many a struggling band, and most 20-somethings, regardless of sexual orientation or nationality, struggle to find themselves. But Baghdadi has harnessed something truly special. Like its fractious characters, “Sirens” is both humble and arresting, relatable and unique. It will stay with you long after the band has played their final chords.

“Sirens” opens in NYC Sept. 30 and LA Oct. 7 via Oscilloscope Pictures.