Beneath its plea for free expression in a country choked by repressions, Rita Baghdadi’s film Sirens, premiering in the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance, is at its heart about forging a clear definition of the self that exists without a relation to the clampdown in the environment. Baghdadi, in her portrait of Lebanon’s first all-female metal band, is conscious of the immense social responsibility incumbent in her choice of subject, especially interlocking themes of identities and social roles of women circumscribed by the double oppression in the military patriarchal condition. This condition imposes fixed untenable boundaries but the girls of this band, Slaves to Sirens, defy and upend the conventional expectations of marriage and at most a school teaching profession as filler, with a spirit that distills courage into everyday acts of being.
Baghdadi hurls us into the atmosphere with an introduction that immediately captures the prevailing restlessness in Lebanon, as a consequence of iron-fisted rule, widespread unemployment, and entrenched homophobia. The walls and streets are full of public rage against the administration. The rallies breed the first stirrings of the friendship between Lilas and Shery, who proceed to create their band, of which they are the lead guitarists. This five-girl band is stacked up against odds that range from a conservative ethos which they have to live and operate in, to the very niche bracket of their country’s population that is in consonance with their tastes and sensibilities.
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What emerges is never a sense of cynicism about the inevitability of never breaking out on a global stage; when everything seems almost concerted to pit them against a fate of being thoroughly invisibilized and resigned to the margins of aesthetic expression, the girls hold on steadfastly to their vigorous ambition, staring down rejection, yearning for a semblance of an outlet that can liberate them in some measure from the constricting circumstances. There is not a trace of self-defeated attitude instead a stubbornness to keep pushing at the edges of what is permissible in Lebanon. They resist being shoehorned into a life spent in fear and hesitance of embarking on their ambitions which no hostile situation can break or even mildly dent.
Baghdadi takes us through all the facets in the lives of the girls, with its focus on Lilas and Shery and the ‘electricity’ in the dynamics between the two. Their history together, few resolutions of which have not been honestly addressed by Lilas particularly, leads to conflicts and ruptures, misgivings and accusations of deliberate alienation. A romantic development in the friendship with Shery precipitated Lilas’s discovery of her sexuality. Baghdadi shows Lilas’s unwillingness to confront her own self with the due attention, tied with the expectations foisted on her by her otherwise deeply encouraging mother. There are jam sessions with the band, as the creation of music often rubs the wrong shoulder with the brunt of a side to Lilas’s and Shery’s relationship which was denied closure and the transparency of a final understanding.
While Baghdadi is well rounded in her attempts to show the band across a gamut of experience, from learning the basics of utilizing a stage for a performance, to their first concert in the UK to rejections in a culture and society that is hesitant to embrace them fully, there is a peculiar sense of lacking to the film. There are diligently interspersed moments when Lilas and Shery take the bolder plunge and enact life choices that are mutedly radical but are ultimately brief fairytale-esque encounters. These transient episodes are belied by the poignant realization, articulated by Shery herself in a scene, that time is rudely pilfering out and the scope for proving their capabilities evermore formidably vast and unattainable.
The personal and political which Baghdadi seeks to encapsulate evidently is hobbled by a very indistinct gaze. Hardly any angle to this story feels rooted appropriately or located firmly. The turmoil in the country comes across as not lived in by the director, rather just telegraphed around to suit her interest in what can be easily viewed as a ripe timely example of repression and the search for individuality and a voice that can in its own ways challenge and decimate the unwritten rules of engagement. The film constantly struggles for conveying the intimacy and trust these girls share, but the depthless look at the other girls in the band serves to undermine the intent.
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The energy that would pulsate easily through the sheer force exerted by these girls’ dreams and efforts to concretize them never translates, disappointingly especially because the music aspect fails to soar or convince us wholly. In a quest for a holistic purview of the band and their personal and public lives, the film derails in the lack of specificity rendered in their trajectories. Oppression and containment of aspiration to the bare minimum, which would make for compelling cinema anyway, here gets channelized into a routine like a task of highlighting rallies, police standoffs, brutalities levied, and bomb explosions.
The absence of authenticity in the director’s gaze that would sting in its minutiae lurches any viewer’s effort to insert them and try and situate the girls in the unfolding troubled context. The private life Lilas leads, fully through clandestine and carefully guarded veneer yields plenty of amusing exchanges with her friends but the film never succeeds in taking us and relating to her frustrations and crippling anxieties. However, a pre climactic scene of the two close friends sharing a laugh over one’s dating life just as a rally proceeds furiously past them, and they sneak into it as well, nicely winds up into stabilizing their precarious relationship right back on track, echoing of the roots of their history.