Pop and metal aren’t friends. Each knows exactly where the other lives and tries to keep its distance. They choose different streets, neighborhoods, zip codes.
-Dave Mustaine, ‘Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir’.

Throughout Rita Baghdadi’s spirited documentary, the members of the all-female Lebanese thrash metal band Slaves to Sirens are told by family and friends how they would be more successful as a pop band, but for Lilas and her bandmates, Shery, Maya, Alma, and Tatyana, they know rock is about quality, not quantity. Pop can exist in the background; metal requires your undivided attention as it’s meant to be played LOUD. While searching for their identity these five 20-somethings forge their unique sound that includes roaring guttural vocals, powerful heavy riffs, and thunderous drums.

Lead guitarist Shery Bechara and guitarist Lilas Mayassi are the faces of Slaves to Sirens. One may use the term “leaders” to describe their function. But anyone who has ever played in a band can tell you it’s a collaborative effort. Still, the face of a group is usually the vocalist or a singer-guitarist duo. Would Joan Jett and Cherie Currie be considered the leaders of The Runaways or does Lita Ford, who like Jett went on to a successful solo career, factor in the equation? There’s no question that co-founders Lilas and Shery are Siren’s leaders and their relationship, which isn’t clearly defined, is at the center of Baghdadi’s documentary.

Most of the film takes place in Beirut, and while same-sex relations are not illegal in Lebanon, a stigma exists perpetuated by the conservative stance of the Middle East. Graffiti on a wall reads, “Homophobia is a Crime,” a sign of the LGTBQ movement in the city, still Lilas is careful as she begins dating a girl from Syria. In one scene, Shery speaks to the camera as she comments about the love she feels for Lilas, “Whenever we saw each other or were in the same room, we felt this kind of electricity” which led to her bandmate liking girls and eventually created a tension that pushed the two apart.

As a straight-up music documentary, “Sirens” would be compelling to watch as the band gets noticed by Revolver magazine which leads to a gig at the world-famous Glastonbury festival. The afternoon slot on one of the fest’s many stages drew just a handful of people but the band still gave their all, “I wanna see your f—king heads banging!” screams vocalist Maya Khairallah. But this is not your average rock doc, apart from the sexism, feminism, and equality aspects, “Sirens” is set during a revolution, a time of turmoil as thousands fill the streets of Beirut to protest, in unison, they chant, “Revolution!” while waving the national flag of Lebanon. The various layers of Baghdadi’s documentary, her third feature, elevate the film’s status to “fascinating.”

Rita Baghdadi grew up in the years following 9/11. As an Arab-American she witnessed how her ethnic group became demonized, suddenly everyone in her culture was targeted as a terrorist. She was deeply affected by the times which reflected how Arabs were portrayed in cinema. Where were the true versions of herself and her family in film? After discovering Slave to Sirens’ music, which led to meeting Lilas, she decided to make a feature that showed how Arab women have hopes and dreams like everyone else, especially young ladies in their 20s who are still evolving and growing while searching for an adult identity. They are no different from American women, as evident in the documentary, they are, however, facing a life that isn’t as generous when it comes to personal freedom.

The film includes footage of the warehouse explosion in Beirut that killed 218 people and wounded 7000 others, decimating a large portion of the city’s port area. Lilas reflects, “We inherited some kind of trauma from our parents. I wasn’t aware of it. Until this explosion happened.” The tragedy causes her to realize nothing feels safe including home, friendships, and love. As with most bands, there are disagreements and fights, as seen in the film when Shery quits the group, but out of tragedy, comes new strength. Slave to Sirens reform to join the Beirut Orchestra in a beautiful moment to perform Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in a televised memorial.

“Sirens” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Produced by Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph, the documentary sounds like a juxtaposition as it tells an intimate story amidst the thrash metal scene. These ladies and this documentary rock. It’s also quite beautiful.

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Texas Theatre with screenings Saturday and Sunday. For more information visit https://thetexastheatre.com/

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.