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Meet this all-female thrash metal band from Lebanon in a new documentary

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

What you're hearing is happening at the ruins of a Roman temple. It's an orchestra playing Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" at a popular cultural event in Lebanon - the annual Baalbeck International Festival. On stage are two young women rocking out on their electric guitars. They're Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, co-founders of Lebanon's first ever thrash metal band, Slave to Sirens. They're the subject of Rita Baghdadi's new documentary called "Sirens." I spoke with Rita and Lilas and started by asking Lilas how she formed the band.

LILAS MAYASSI: So I went on Facebook, and I would literally go on, just scroll through the newsfeed that I have and see if any girl would be holding a guitar or a bass, and I would instantly message them...

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

MAYASSI: ...And see if they're interested to join me.

PFEIFFER: Rita, how did you find the band, and why did you think this would make a good documentary?

RITA BAGHDADI: I discovered Slave to Sirens through their music. This was in 2018, when they had just put out their EP. So they had four songs on the internet. You know, one day I was just looking for new music to listen to. It's a big - you know, music's a big inspiration in my life and for my work, but I wasn't necessarily, you know, searching for a movie idea, just trying to listen to some good music. And when I heard their songs, I was really struck by them. I was really blown away by the amazing sound. And I just thought, I have to meet these incredibly strong, talented, amazing young women.

But for me as a filmmaker, you know, as an Arab American growing up in a very tricky time in America for Arab people - around 9/11 and the Iraq war - you know, circumstances where images and portrayals of Arab people in the media were really negative and demonizing and women were really just nonexistent in those stories anyway - so when I met the band and thought about a film, it really brought me back to that time when I was a teenager. And I really wanted to make a film that I wish I had seen growing up, where Arab women could be the stars of their own story and not the victims of someone else's.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. You know, in this documentary, the history and the politics and the dysfunction of Lebanon are always present - war and instability and protests and unemployment and banks running out of cash, electricity constantly going on and off, being told there's no future there. Lilas, how does being in a thrash band help you express that? Does it help you get out that frustration of living in that kind of environment, that kind of societal situation?

MAYASSI: Yeah. Metal gave me a way to express myself. You know, everything that's surrounding us, not just Lebanon, even the MENA region - we're always affected by whatever is happening around us. So metal gave me a way or a chance to just vent out and be able to, you know, say whatever I have on my mind through music.

PFEIFFER: Lilas, you used the word venting. There's this powerful, memorable scene to me where one of your band members just roars. She just opens up her mouth, and a roar comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SIRENS")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing, inaudible).

PFEIFFER: And it just felt like it was letting out everything that she had been going through, living in Beirut with all its problems, all its violence. The roar felt symbolic.

MAYASSI: Yeah, exactly. That's - I mean, these moments, every time we go to practice, I feel these moments are very, very special. And I feel they are sacred in a way because we're just doing a kind of ritual and healing all together and venting out and expressing all these complex emotions that sometimes we don't have the words for. So it's easier for us to write music and just let it all out through music.

PFEIFFER: Rita, from a filmmaking perspective, I was thinking how well you contrasted so many of the scenes of the metal music with these violent street protest scenes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PFEIFFER: Everything going wrong. And it felt like you had this incredible device to reflect societal dysfunction and this sort of angry, pent-up, passionate music. Did that - how did you think about that as you were creating those scenes as a filmmaker?

BAGHDADI: Well, exactly as Lilas said, you know, it's - sometimes you don't have the words for it. It's like you just feel so angry, and you feel so, you know, powerless in moments. And I think to be able to just scream - you know, like, women don't get enough opportunities to just scream.

(LAUGHTER)

MAYASSI: Yeah, exactly.

BAGHDADI: There's a lot to scream about. You know, when I first got there in November of 2018, it was a - it had been a relatively calm period in Lebanon. And very soon after, that's when the economic collapse started happening. And then, of course, the revolution happened. When I saw the, you know, band practicing and writing their new album, you know, these factors were coming into play.

PFEIFFER: You make an important point, which is that even if you just wanted to make a coming-of-age story, absent politics, it seems that it's almost impossible to do that because the coming of age is so intertwined with the politics of the country and the society that how could you omit it? It seems like, as you concluded, you can't.

BAGHDADI: Yeah. I would have felt that that was just completely, you know, not true to the experience that I had filming it and not true to the experience of the band and why they - you know, Lilas and Shery met in a protest. They formed under protest, and they write music that is, you know, a rebellion in and of itself.

PFEIFFER: Lilas, there's that moment in the beginning of the film, where all you and your band members are poring over some press you got and excited to see what has been said.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SIRENS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Getting ready to make some noise.

PFEIFFER: I assume you've had a lot more of that since then. So what's your band up to these days?

MAYASSI: Right now we finished recording our album, but we still have the vocals. Our vocalist, Maya, decided to go on a different path, unfortunately, and our drummer, Tatyana, as well. So, you know - life (laughter). But yeah, we're actively trying to find new members to regroup. We have big plans just doing the us and maybe signing to a label. I don't know - so big, big plans.

PFEIFFER: So even having lost some band members, which often happens with bands, you still feel good. You still feel like it's going well, and you'll do this for a long time, maybe for as long as you can.

MAYASSI: Yeah. The way I see it, I always keep moving forward no matter what. So all the remaining bandmates right now, my bandmates - Alma, the bassist, and Shery, guitarist, lead guitar - we just want to keep moving forward. And ultimately, that's the message behind the band, just to inspire everyone to never give up on their dreams, no matter how difficult life can be. And as long as there's the dedication, the perseverance and, you know, the hope, yeah, anything is possible. And the support of good friends, of course.

BAGHDADI: And the sisterhood.

MAYASSI: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: That's Lilas Mayassi from the band Slave to Sirens and Rita Baghdadi, director of "Sirens," the documentary about the band. It's in theaters now. Thank you to both of you.

MAYASSI: Thank you.

BAGHDADI: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAVE TO SIRENS SONG, "TERMINAL LEECHES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Sarah Handel
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.