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Still from Sirens.

ReFrame Review: Sirens

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
and
and
January 20, 2023
ReFrame Review: Sirens
Still from Sirens.

It can be a lot to take in a film with so many moving parts and complex dynamics. As I watched Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Rita Baghdadi’s 2022 documentary Sirens, I was forced to reflect on some of my experiences being part of a nascent scene of hardcore music in the mid-2000s and early 2010s.

As a fairly serious metalhead in my teenage years and a staunch fan of heavy music to this day, I have recently re-connected to the liberating ethos of the mosh pit after a traumatizing incident. No matter how much I sometimes secretly wished people would recognize my skinny jeans and studded belt for the signs of resistance and revolution that I so desperately wanted to embody. By virtue of my birthplace and gender, not one single time has my at times very questionable (and ironically very conforming) sense of style and taste in music been called into question nor have I been made to feel unsafe because of it. This, I realize, is a privilege not afforded to everyone. 

Baghdadi’s film is a moving account of Lebanon’s first and only all-female thrash metal band, Slave to Sirens. The band’s music provides an apt soundtrack to the increasing political and social unrest across the country following the 17 October Rebellion of 2019 traced throughout the film. It is fitting to learn through the film that the band had its inception during a political rally in 2015 when founding members, guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara first met.

The road before the group is arduous - thrash metal, its fans, and creators are notoriously viewed as Satanic, morally devoid, and even dangerous in Lebanon and other countries across the Middle East. Focusing mainly on the experiences and complicated relationship between Mayassi and Bechara, Sirens dwells on the pursuit of one’s passions in the face of adversity and the necessity of producing art that is responsive to and resists power structures. 

The film’s subject matter opens up important discussions surrounding women’s rights in Middle-Eastern countries. Expectations of femininity both in public and in the home are explored through intimate scenes showing conversations between Mayassi and her mother. When Mayassi at one point expresses her will to move out because “the house is shrinking”, her mother is quick to tell her that she can leave when she has a husband and some kids.

These larger social and personal contexts inform the work and almost every conversation had between the figures we are introduced to throughout the film. The lives and the music of the band members and their friends become totally inextricable from the larger realities they are living through. Mayassi recounts the fact that there are generations of inherited trauma in Lebanon, she recalls her grandparents saying that there is no future here. The women’s will for self-expression is constantly at odds with the society they were born into. An opportunity to play a side stage at Glastonbury is symbolic of their dreams, but ultimately delivers little of the promise of hope and escape that the women seek through their music.

The trepidations surrounding sexuality linger throughout the film and come to a head during a scene when the audience witnesses Mayassi and her mother watching a news piece about the Lebanese band, Mashrou' Leila, who has faced death threats and arrests for their open support of LGBTQ rights. At a particularly low point in the narrative for Mayassi, when the fabric of every facet of her life seems to be fraying, she tells us that “Home doesn’t feel safe, love doesn’t feel safe, friendship doesn’t feel safe.” 

Through cut scenes of protests and riot police attempting to quell the growing unrest overlaid with songs from the band’s debut EP, Terminal Leeches (2018), the audience is reminded of the costs of standing out in a crowd and making art and music that resists convention. Slave to Sirens is the real deal and despite the group losing two of its five members after the completion of the documentary, Mayassi and Bechara still make music together while continuing to dream of one day escaping Lebanon.

The 2023 ReFrame Festival runs from January 26th-February 3rd. A list of films, tickets to events and screenings, and more information can be found on the Festival Website.

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