Sundance 2022 Interview: SIRENS Director Rita Baghdadi and Stars Lilas Mayassi, Shery Bechara Talk Metal
Allowing your life to become the subject of a documentary is a brave feat under the most comfortable of circumstances, yet in Rita Baghdadi’s Sirens, we’re treated to an intimate window into a badass band who dare to be themselves, while living in the oppressive city of Beirut, Lebanon, where self-expression and individuality are not considered commendable as much as treasonous.
One can easily see what compelled Baghdadi to document the ascent of Slave to Sirens, cofounded by heavy metal-lovers, Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, in their uniquely Middle Eastern quest for metal glory, but what she, of course, couldn’t have realized at the outset of her cinematic journey was that their story would go far beyond the surface headline for the group, which tends to go something like, ‘first all-female Metal band’.
Instead, Sirens is that, but also far more. Yes, the film is a document of a unique moment in global Metal history, but even more compelling, it is a moving universal story about the complications of juggling a fiery friendship with a palpably hot musical chemistry and how creative relationships develop over time for better or worse, especially as audiences begin (and continue) to enter into the picture.
During the week of the film’s premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, I had the great pleasure of discussing these things and more with Slave to Sirens’ Shery Bechara & Lilas Mayassi, along with their storyteller, Rita Baghdadi.
How did you first come to fall for heavy metal music?
Shery: I was a teenager. My best friend, she had a bigger brother. He used to listen to a lot of metal, and rock, and everything. She was very inspired by him. And then, one day I gave her my MP3. Not these old school records. You put music on them, and you just listen to them in school without anyone seeing you.
So she pressed record one night, and there was this AC/DC song playing. And then, I heard it was just for a few seconds. And I heard this riff, and I'm like, "Whoa, this is so cool." It was like, "da-da da-da….Da-da-da-da-da." (Singing the riff of AC/DC’s "Back in Black.") Yes. So I was like, "Dude, what is this?" And then, I got into Iron Maiden, and then the heavier stuff. And now, I love everything that's got to do with death and trash, and black.
Lilas: Black metal, yeah. An extreme evolution of your taste.
Have you ever analyzed why Metal? Or you don't bother thinking about it? You're just into it. You like it and that's good enough.
Shery: Yeah. I guess that's right. I never analyzed it.
How about you, Lilas?
Lilas: Actually, it's a funny story. I discovered metal by a complete accident. My dad, when I was around, I think, 12 or 13 brought back home a sound system; a hi-fi they call it. And there was a CD player in it. It was a testing CD, I think it was from the shop; they forgot it. And I played the CD, and there was a bunch of albums on it. There was Beyonce, and Tina Turner, now I'm remembering.
And then, suddenly, I hear something else totally. Distortion. And I had no idea who was that band, but I was so in love with the sound. I had no idea what was going on. And later on, on MTV music ... I used to watch a lot of MTV music, and I waited for all the artists and everything. The same song came up on TV with a video, and I actually saw the band. It was Evanescence. I saw Amy Lee for the first time, with all the distortion, and the vocals. And oh, my God…
Shery: Also very Goth-like.
Lilas: Oh my God. Yeah. Wow.
Did you guys already play guitar? Or did that make you want to pick up instruments?
Shery: Well, for me, it was just like, the same phase of when that same friend told me about metal. We started getting into Slash so she was like "dude, your dad plays guitar. He can teach us." I'm like "dude, yes! That's what we're going to do." And then that's how it happened.
Lilas: Yeah. And it took me a year just to buy a guitar. I didn't even buy it, I was telling my best friend that I want to play guitar, and she's like, my cousin has one in the attic, it has a lot of dust on it and stuff, try it, it might work. I'm like, okay, that's amazing. So I got it back home, and it was a Fender Squier. And a little mini amp Fender.
Whoa! That was my first guitar! A Squier!
Yeah? … So this is how it started. Yeah, I was like around 15, 16.
So how did you guys finally meet?
Lilas: I met Shery through a mutual friend and a protest in Beirut. He was like, a friend of ours, "Shery plays guitar, you should meet her."
Shery: Yeah he said the same thing to me. He was like "dude, Lilas is getting so much better on guitar." He was tutoring her for a while, and then she started off alone, she continued alone. And then he saw a video and he was like, "dude, just look at Lilas, she's so good now on guitar, just let me get you guys together and for you to meet and maybe do a band together." And so, yeah.
Lilas: So yeah, I saw Shery at a protest and it was so awkward. He's like, "are you guys going to talk? For fuck's sake just talk, do something, do it." And she told me she has a Flying V guitar and I was so in love with Flying V.
Shery: Oh yeah!
Lilas: She's like, "I can lend it to you". I'm like "what?!" And a week later I texted Shery that there was a small gig in a pub nearby. I told her ‘let's do something’, although we didn't have a full band.
Shery: Yeah. It was just me and her.
Lilas: Just jamming and having fun. And that's how it went.
And how long did it take for you to be making music that was starting to get out there? Like how long before that show and Rita hearing your band for the first time?
Shery: When was it? I guess 2018? So two years actually!
Lilas: Yeah, exactly. Two years. Like literally after forming the whole band and finding all members because it wasn't really easy to find women who play Metal or at least are interested in that kind of music.
So it took me a while to find everyone. Like from Shery to everyone else, literally on Facebook I was stalking any girl holding a guitar, and I used to send a message, "Hey, are you interested in forming a thrash death metal band?" Most of their replies were like, "No, no, we play blues, we play like the not so extreme stuff."
And that's how it went, and we formed the band. We released an EP, four songs. It was really exciting around 2018, and that's when a few months later Rita heard about some content.
Rita, can you tell me how you came to discover Slave to Siren?
Rita: I think it was in June of 2018. I'd have to go back and look at the message that I sent Lilas on Facebook. But I remember seeing an image of them, that I think your friend took, and it was all five of them standing in the forest, all wearing black and this giant hair, they all had long hair, Lilas had long hair back then, like down to her knees.
And you know, she was standing there like this (stern with hands on hips), like on the side of the frame… So then I went and listened to their EP on Spotify and I was absolutely blown away. Because the headline is always like ‘first all-female Metal band’ or whatever, which is the headline of our film as well, but when you first see that, you're kind of like, ‘Okay, is this a gimmick?’ And no, absolutely not. I listened to their EP and I was completely blown away. I was never a Metalhead growing up, but I listened to punk and hardcore, and thrash has its roots kind of in punk, so it wasn't that far off. And I just was completely mesmerized by their image and their sound.
And I was like, ‘Okay, I really need to meet these young women’. And the reason why I wanted to make a film ultimately is their talent, but also because I really wanted to tell a story that could help counteract all the negative stereotypes of Arab people and people in the Middle East that I grew up with in post-9/11 America. So I thought this is a really great opportunity to explore that and, sure enough, they were super open to it.
Lilas, do you remember -- I mean, obviously you remember getting that message -- but were you like, ‘Who is this person and what does she want from us?’
Lilas: Yeah. Most of the times we would be contacted by journalists, everyone wanted to have interviews and take videos of us rehearsing. And I thought, she's one of these people. Okay. Let's see where it goes. Why not?
So yeah. I had no idea that this was going to take us really far, like getting into all the sisterhood and love and friendship and we all bonded together and it was- it is an amazing journey still.
How long did it take for you all to find your rhythm and feel comfortable with this film you were suddenly making?
Lilas: Honestly, it wasn't easy at first, because imagine having a camera following you -- Rita all day. It was so weird, but with time you get used to it and Rita was amazing. So yeah, that really helped.
Rita: You guys were open from the beginning, though. They never were shy. They never were camera shy.
How was it finally showing the band a cut of the film? Were you nervous?
Rita: I was so nervous ...
Lilas: Yeah, I remember!
Rita: Because I brought my editor with me. We flew to Beirut. My editor's Lebanese, so her family lives in the Tripoli area. And so she got a whole trip out of it as well, but we went together and we brought Tatiana, our co-producer who lives in Beirut, and we sat down each individually with each band member at a time, and showed them the cut, starting with Lilas, because it was very much her story and it's very sensitive.
So that was what made me nervous. Obviously we had discussed, ‘Are these themes allowed in the movie?’ It was a negotiation of what are we actually allowed to put in the movie, what are we not? Where's the line? But I didn't really show them footage along the way because I didn't want them to get self-conscious.
It was the first time they were seeing anything after three years. And I think Lilas cried and Shery hugged me and it was a really beautiful moment, but it was terrifying for me to show them at first.
I mean, I feel like even under the best of circumstances, it's a really brave thing to let somebody into your life and make a film about you. But in your specific case, it's extremely brave. Did you have any reservations? How do you feel about this thing that exists now and is out in the world -- at the Sundance film festival, for gosh sakes?
Lilas: I'm still processing to be honest. I know the size of what's happening is so huge. All these things and the events and the release, I'm still actually processing…
Of course, this must be a shocking experience.
Lilas: Yeah, exactly.
Rita: I think also since Sundance canceled in-person events, they don't really have any context for what it should have felt like to premier this movie. And so I think it felt a little bit smaller than in my mind that I know it is.
Cause like if we were in Park City, we would all be sitting in a hundreds person theater together. They would've really felt it. But because everyone's watching it at home it feels a little bit smaller. Until we start to go to the European festivals, I think they won't really quite grasp what’s happening.
I'm so excited for you all! Had you guys done much touring as a band prior to this film? Or prior to Glastonbury (where their appearance is featured in the film)?
Lilas: Not really. Glastonbury was the first big stage we played on outside Lebanon. And with Glastonbury, Wacken Open air followed in Germany. And then the last concert we played was a festival in Casa Blanca, Morocco.
Lilas: Yeah, it was all in 2019 and then our life stopped there.
I'm sure that was all very culture shocking, but this must be far more culture shocking. Is this your first time in America?
And now you’re staying in Los Angeles of all places! So what do you think of Hollywood?
Lilas: Amazing. So fun. Amazing. We love the vibe here. It's amazing.
Shery: Yeah. We want to live here...
Lilas: Later on.
I would love for you guys to do a North American tour. I think that will be a really fun experience.
Shery: Yeah. Touring here would be so fucking epic. Yeah.
So Lilas, at what point do you see yourself sharing this film with the people in your life, like your mother?
Lilas: It's going to happen at some point, but I wanted to take some time before we get to the point where I actually tell my mother or go into that tough conversation where I have to tell her what's my life. It's not actually my reality. So I'm hoping we kind of have a bit of time before we reach that point.
This film is so great because it’s such a real look at growing in a band, which of course will have more than its share of tense times, considering it's such an intimate relationship, is it weird watching this movie now that you’re removed from living it? Does it bring out old wounds? Does it even feel like you? Do you recognize these people on the screen?
Lilas: For me, it's kind of weird when I watch myself because I really don't recognize the person I'm seeing anymore. Like most of the things or the behaviors or actions or whatever, the attitude. Yeah, I mean, I don't really relate anymore with most of the things happening because I feel like I'm a different person now. This film took around three years to shoot and everything.
So people change with time. That's common. So it was tough for me to watch it at the first time, but now I kind of accept that person I was watching because that was me and it's okay. It's fine.
Shery? How about you?
Shery: Well, there are many parts of me. There’s many things that part of me doesn't want to be like. I’m like ‘No, this is not me.’ But, part of me is like, ‘Yes, this is me.’ And part of me is like, ‘Yes, this was me.’ You know? And then part of me is like, “Is that really me?
Shery: So yeah.
Lilas: A lot of things happened and changed, especially with the band, like the whole tension that was happening that you see in the film, a lot of things we worked on of course.
Yeah. And as you said, you're still processing it. This experience is still very young for you guys, but this film's still going to be here in 40 years. Has that occurred to you?
Lilas: I didn’t think of that.
Rita, how are you feeling about being at the finish line of this giant marathon you've all run together now you've shown your subjects the film and have premiered at Sundance. Where's your head been this week?
Rita: Oh, I've been pulled in so many directions. You know, I have the emotional side of it all with bringing them and experiencing everything with them. And then I've been a filmmaker for a while, so I also have the business side and the industry side of me that's feeling like I have to be on point all the time. And so those clashes are exhausting, but ultimately it's all good.
The reception of the movie has been so positive. There's so much love for this film and for these ladies and for the band. People are getting interested in managing them.
Rita: They got a PR sponsorship. And the outpouring of love from both industries, music and film is just so...
Lilas: It's all thanks to you.
Rita: Well, it really makes me so happy. I think that this film will be a success if they can get a tour, if they can be a success, basically. So I'm really happy.
Well, I think it's all a great big success. So thank you so much for your film and for your band and sharing it with the world, and for your time for this interview. I appreciate it.
Lilas: Thank you so much.
I hope to see you live sometime!
Shery: Woo! Definitely!
Lilas: Yes, you will!