Sundance Interview with “Sirens” Director Rita Baghdadi

By Morgan Roberts

Premiering at this year’s Sundance, “Sirens” is a documentary feature film following the lives of the women in the Lebanese metal band Slave to Sirens. The film explores the complexities of being in an all-female band, being misunderstood by society, and finding one’s voice.

The film is directed by Moroccan-American filmmaker Rita Baghdadi. Baghdadi’s first feature film, “My Country No More,” was awarded Best Feature at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2018. Her second documentary, “City Rising,” received an Emmy award for Best Social Issue Film. It is still being used as a tool against housing discrimination. With her latest film, “Sirens,” Baghdadi brings an intimate and compassionate look into the lives of the band members of Slave to Sirens. In Their Own League writer Morgan Roberts sat down with Baghdadi to talk “Sirens,” representation in film, balancing the complexity of someone’s story, and why there’s just something special about 90’s rom-coms.

Morgan Roberts: How were you introduced to the band Slave to Sirens?

Rita Baghdadi: So I found out about Slave to Sirens through their music. They had just put out their EP, I think it was, you know, like, sort of kismet, the timing of it all. So it was in 2018, I heard their music on Spotify. And I was so blown away by their talent. And just, I mean, you hear of a band that’s quote, unquote, the Middle East’s first all-female metal band, or really anything that’s all-female, my brain immediately is like, “is that a gimmick,” you know. Their music was not a gimmick, their talent on their instruments blew me away. And so I did a little bit of research on them. And I saw this image on the internet of these five young women dressed all in black standing in a Lebanese forest. And I remember Lilas was on the left side of the frame, kind of standing off to the side, like a little bit away from the rest of the band members, and she had her arms crossed, and like, super angsty, and I was really drawn in by her presence. And by the image of the band,I just felt like I had to meet them. So, then I messaged them on Facebook. I started up a relationship online; we Skyped. And we just really hit it off, me and Lilas. But the other side to it was that it was around the same time that my dad was diagnosed with a brain disease, and he was dying. And I was really struggling with the idea of losing him, of course, and just I think I was really searching for a way to reach out and reconnect with the Arab side of me, you know, because my family lives in Morocco. So I, sort of, was always torn between Morocco and America. And I really didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the Middle East growing up. And so, I think that I recognized myself in Lilas, and that was a really powerful moment.

Morgan: Yeah, and one of the things that the film does is you kind of immerse yourself, not just in their music, but with Lilas and Shery’s lives. So what was it like, almost becoming part of the fabric of their day to day lives?

Rita: It was intense, actually, you know, it just happened organically. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna embed myself in their personal lives.” It’s just – I think it’s just part of my personality. Number one, I just make films where I can get really intimate with people and start to understand them on a deeper level, and hopefully translate that for an audience. But you know, right from the beginning, they were so open and charismatic, and I just wanted to spend every minute with them. They’re so just really fun to be around. But there was also, they were open about, you know, when they had issues or whatever. And, it was all sort of very easy to embed, because there wasn’t a barrier. They didn’t have a wall up, and so, the first time I went to Beirut, I lived with Lilas for a week. And so I got to know, intimately, her daily life and her mom and her brother, and they were so hospitable. And for three years on and off, that’s kind of how it went. I mean, later, I had my own apartment. I didn’t burden them with hosting me all the time, but it was really nice to get really intimate really quickly. 

Morgan: I think the other thing, too, that you introduce them to us in this band, and then we see that their music is kind of a reflection, as most artists have, of their struggles and them trying to process the world. And, you know, you have to very delicately handle their relationship because it comes to light that Lila and Sherry were partners and in a romantic relationship. What was it like kind of navigating that story while also being respectful of it as well?

Rita: It was a very tricky thing to navigate. And what I’ll tell you is that I had no idea about any of their sexualities until, I think, it was like a year into filming. It just wasn’t the topic of conversation. It wasn’t why I was making the film. I was interested in a band, you know, trying to make it against extraordinary circumstances. I was interested in making a raw, complex portrait of young womanhood in the MENA region, and in the Middle East or North Africa, like those were the things I was drawn to. And so, you know, sexuality just wasn’t even discussed for a long time. I can’t remember exactly how it came out. But little moments, like in the bar, where Leila says, like, “Oh, I like, you know, I like beautiful things.” And she sort of speaks in code, because she sort of has had to for so long. And so that, you start to put it together, and then as we bonded and I gained her trust these, sort of, things started to come out. But still, I didn’t know, I wasn’t planning on making the movie about that. It just happened to be, you know, struggling with their sexuality. And so, yeah, it was really like each one I kind of had to discuss privately with, like, how are we dealing with this? What are you comfortable with? And, you know, minds would change all the time. And so it was really sort of a dance of like, is, are we doing this? Or are we not? You know, is this the way the movie’s going? It was always sort of a conversation. Yeah, in the end, you know, we decided that it was important for this to be a big part of the movie, because it’s their origins story, the band’s origin story, and Lilas and Shery, particularly Lilas, really wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people in the region also going through the same thing. And so I think she was willing to, you know, she’s coming out with this movie. I don’t know if people really realize because it’s a subtle, nuanced film, she doesn’t just say, “Look, I’m coming out,” but, you know, her parents, her mom doesn’t know that she’s out. And so with this film, she’s kind of making a big statement. And the reason she wanted to do it is to potentially make a difference in other people’s lives.

Morgan: Yeah, absolutely. And as you mentioned, the coming out process in the film is a little bit coded. And so I think that that adds to the respect that you had for her coming out process to which we want to see grand coming out scenes, and we don’t always see that. We have these women who, you know, their music isn’t appreciated, they’re not seen as important in that realm. They are women in a patriarchal society, which all of us are, and then they’re also queer women on top of that. So can you talk about the balance of holding those intersectional pieces to them as people?

Rita: Well, it’s important because that is who they are as people. And I think that when you’re making a film that’s a complex portrayal of a human being, then you want to see those facets to them. And it felt, I mean, it’s a lot to deal with; on top of the political unrest in the country, on top of the explosion, it’s like, yeah, we found ourselves in a predicament. We’re like, “well, we’re certainly making a complex portrayal here.” You know, we bit off a lot. And in a short time, I think navigating them was something that I had to do in the field in real time. But it was, ultimately, in the edit. It was testing it over and over and over again, with people I trusted. One trusted person at a time, like, “Is this coming across?” “Are you confused?” Because we also really wanted it to feel in the moment and we wanted to make a verite film and so we didn’t want to have a lot of lower thirds and text, and we wanted it to be very immersive and experiential. And so it was just important for me to get in as many of the little details about the personalities and who they are as people as well as the country for context.

Morgan: I wonder what it’s like for you as a filmmaker to be a fly on the wall because, you know, we watched them go to the Glastonbury Festival. And it’s a huge deal, but it does not play out like anyone had expected. And it’s both understandable, because it’s a huge festival, but also you feel disappointed and hurt with them. So what is that like to kind of sit with those things that you obviously can’t have any control in?

Rita: Yeah, well, I’d say for every moment that’s in the movie, there’s 10, 15, 20, 100 moments that aren’t on screen, and being with them for intense periods of time, I felt those ups and downs with them. And it was tough to not even talk from behind the camera and be like, “Oh, you guys, you know, it’s okay.” You know, they became my sisters. And so it was tough to see them go through all of the ups and downs that they went through at Glastonbury, when you’re such a small fish in such a big pond. Yeah, I wasn’t surprised. But I think there was a lot of hope, because they were being brought there by a record label that maybe the record label would at least have a conversation with them about signing, and there just wasn’t. And I’m about 10 years older than them. So I kind of understood a little bit, but I think the girls just kind of didn’t quite get why it didn’t change their lives. In the moment, I think. Obviously, they know now, and it’s not a big deal, but it was tough. Yeah, it was tough to witness all that.

Morgan: And what have been their reactions to seeing the film and seeing it with people?

Rita: Well, the first time they saw it, they were really emotional. I played the film individually for each of the young women. I flew to Beirut, and I played it for each of them, so that they could have their time to express their concerns, and talk to me privately without the rest of the band because they have their own dynamic. And I knew it wasn’t gonna be, not everyone was gonna love and be super thrilled that they weren’t the stars of the movie. So there were a lot of complex emotions going on. But I think Lilas felt really seen. And she was emotional and just really loves the movie to this day, really loves it. From the very beginning, she really had no comments, except for one tiny little thing that we discussed just a little moment that could have presented some issues, you know, security wise, but same for the others. Shery really, really loved it. And everybody did as well. I think they were shocked. You know, I don’t know that they quite grasped how big it was going to be. I mean, not to say that it’s big yet, but getting into Sundance and all of this, I think, well, none of us really knew. But I tried to prep them as much as possible, but having no experience with film, and the industry and everything, it’s a lot for them to take on.

Morgan: Yeah, I can only imagine. And I think one of the things too, that the film does so beautifully is it breaks down stereotypes about Middle Eastern and Arab women, like we see them going out and drinking, which we don’t see on film. So you know, can you talk about that piece and the importance of kind of capturing those moments?

Rita: Absolutely. That is the reason, you know, I wanted to make this film in the first place. Even before I met Sirens, I wanted to make a film like this. I just had no idea what or where. I thought because I’m Moroccan, I would make a movie in Morocco. But this just happened and it sort of came to me and so I went with it. And I think that what I wanted to do was make the film that I would have loved to see when I was growing up. Just to feel that there are humans out there. When you see yourself on screen, it’s a powerful moment. And so there’s so many facets to the Middle East and North Africa. There’s people living their lives just like everywhere else. And I think growing up in post-9/11 America deeply damaged me in terms of the negative of stereotypes and the demonization and the fear that went on around these portrayals in the movies of Arab people. And it continues today. But I think it’s starting to change. That was something I wanted to counteract. And I think that being able to show these women as just young women, doing the things that everyone does, like whether or not it’s public knowledge, like, having fears and having desires, and having complicated relationships with your partner, and with your mom and with alcohol, and with everything, it’s just it’s absolutely necessary to just humanize people.

Morgan: Absolutely. And I think one of the things, too, that I loved is, we still always get grounded back into their music, because that is their personal expression. And I loved the scenes that you had of them, making music together and coming up with guitar riffs. And so what was it like, watching that piece as well, because obviously, you found their music first, and then learned more about their stories.

Rita: It was magical. I mean, I feel like every person I’ve ever loved has been a musician, like all of my partners, and my husband now as a musician. And so I just find the creative process of a musician to be magical to watch. And it’s pure, raw expression just coming out at the moment. Being able to see women playing guitar in such a raw way, I don’t know, there’s something sensual, but also just amazing to just see play out. But it also felt like, these moments between them are more like not metaphors, but, you know, they sort of represented the deeper complexities of what was happening between them, and you can kind of feel it. They feel the tension in the music, in that moment. And so that is kind of what I was trying to get across with these moments of them practicing. It wasn’t super functional, like, “well, we’re just practicing to get to the next festivals.” No, these are pretty intense moments between them. And they just happen to like playing their guitars and coming up with beautiful music at the same time.

Morgan: And were you a fan of metal prior to listening to them? Or has this been like a newfound music genre?

Rita: I grew up listening to hardcore and punk, so never metal. But I feel after making this film I have such an appreciation for the genre. It’s not far off because they play thrash metal, and thrash has roots in punk. But the level of intricacies of the guitar riffs, and the drumming style, and growling style, the way that Maya growls, these are talents that other musical genres I feel don’t quite even have.I think that there’s something really special to the way that they play metal and so I have a much greater appreciation for it and I enjoy it.

Morgan: Yeah. I have added their music onto my Spotify. So yeah, it’s wonderful to listen to and one of the things about this film as well and, you kind of touched a little bit on it, was it does have a very clear vision that even as things shifted, you were still kind of able to maintain the core essence of what made you fall in love with them the first time. What was that editing process like? And, what are some things that you hope that the audience learns from this vision that you have?

Rita: Yeah, I mean, I think I feel like the vision started from the choice of shooting style and I chose early on that I was going to shoot with a fairly wide lens. And I was going to put a filter on it so that everything felt a little bit like this push and pull between dreamy and gritty at the same time. And so I kind of knew those were two factors. And I also knew that I was going to be shooting in low light or sometimes no light because of how the girls just operate at nighttime and there’s very little electricity in Lebanon. And so those kind of informed the style of the film before even really starting to shoot. And then I think that the style of editing, we chose Grace [Zahrah] specifically because she sort of has this style where it’s very sensitive. But it also feels kind of like a fiction film. And I know that it’s like, I kind of hate it when people say things like this, but it is like a thing where, you know, if it doesn’t feel like a traditional doc, you can get lost in it a little bit more. You don’t feel like you’re there with someone trying to teach you something or whatever. So those were the factors that went into the style. And just, you know, we also worked with Lindsay Utz, who was our supervising editor, and she edited incredible films with hundreds of hours or thousands of hours of verite footage, for example, the Billie Eilish doc that recently came out, and “American Factory,” which won the Oscar. And so we chose her because she has this wealth of knowledge about editing verite material in a very sensitive way. So all that, you know, makes the stew, I guess.

Morgan: And in your intro for the film, you noted you wanted to create stories for Arab women who were, and as you stated, “heroes of their own stories instead of victims of others.” And that’s so powerful, and is really captured in this film. So I’m wondering if you can talk more about that.

Rita: Yeah, it goes back to, again, my childhood where I just saw the most negative stereotypes of Arab people and women were largely absent in those stories. They were either oppressed wives or sisters or daughters, or they weren’t even part of the narrative. And so I wanted to make a film where women in the region could be the heroes of their own narrative, and not feel like, I mean, yes, they come up against struggle, because that’s real life, and you want to see someone overcome, you know, challenges. But ultimately, the story, I hope, is one of hope.

Morgan: Absolutely. Well, so I do have just a couple of fun, general questions. So what film do you think more people should see? And why?

Rita: My friends Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei made a short documentary that’s recently out on Netflix, titled “Three Songs for Benazir.” It’s about a beautiful and poignant portrait of humanity that I think everyone should see it.

Morgan: Absolutely. And what is your favorite comfort movie and why?

Rita: “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

Morgan: Solid, it’s a classic.

Rita: I am a sucker for good old rom com. The rom-coms today, I have to say, are not very good, but Cameron Diaz is hilarious. I just love Chicago. Chicago is like my second home. I don’t know, that film brings me a lot of comfort. In fact, me and my co-producer, and sound woman Tatiana, she grew up in Beirut and she loves that movie like the same. So I feel like you know, anyone can get into it. 

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