Get ready to rock with this lively documentary about an all-female Middle Eastern thrash rock band
BY ELEANOR NOYCE, IMAGE BY BFI FLARE
Describe your film in three words!
Love is metal!
Could you tell me a little about your background as a filmmaker? What inspired you to get into film?
Since I was eight years old I wanted to follow people around with a camera. I must have been influenced by my Dad who had a real eye and passion for photography. He would photograph everything my sister and I did. When I was 11 he gave me my own Nikon and taught me how to shoot 35mm. At the same time, my Grandpa on my Mom’s side was the director of NBC News in Chicago, and later a cultural attaché for the US government abroad, so I’m positive he was an influence on me as well.
I founded my high school’s first film club, but was quickly shut down after causing too much trouble. At the age of sixteen my Mom took me to the Maryland Film Festival. That’s when I met John Waters. He was so enchanting that I immediately went home and watched Pink Flamingos. That film really left a strong impression on me. I thought, wow, this really is a great way to express yourself! I wanted to do that, so I went to film school. I thought I would become a fiction filmmaker, until I took Documentary 1 class and I had a great teacher. That began my love affair with the genre. I think what I was drawn to most about documentary filmmaking was that it offered me a way to connect deeply with people. Almost like a symbiotic relationship.
Could you tell me a little bit about your film?
I discovered the band, Slave To Sirens, in 2018 at a really difficult time in my life. My Dad in Morocco was dying of a brain disease and I was struggling with the idea of losing him. I don’t think I knew it back then, but I realise now that I was yearning to connect more deeply with people my age from the Middle East and North Africa, the MENA region. I wanted to forge my own relationship with the region, and re-discover my Arab identity, independent from my Dad and family in Morocco.
While I wasn’t a metal head per se, I grew up listening to punk and hardcore, so when I met Lilas I immediately recognised myself in her. That was a really powerful moment. We connected on a deep level right away, and then hearing her band’s music it was like I could feel all the struggles she was going through. Lilas invited me to stay with her in Beirut, I met the other band members Shery, Maya, Alma and Tatiana, and we decided to make a film together.
Ultimately, I made Sirens because I wanted to challenge western perceptions of women in the Middle East. Growing up Arab-American in post 911 America, I was so damaged by the demonising stereotypes of Arab people on film. And as a filmmaker I was sick of the tone-deaf monolithic stories about the region where everything is war and trauma-porn, and/or women are either sexualised or oppressed by their husbands, but never the main character. With Sirens, I wanted to make a film that I wish I had seen growing up. It was a three and a half year journey with a lot of high highs and very low lows, and in the end I came away with five new sisters.
What LGBTQI themes does it tackle?
I could have never known when I started making Sirens that it would eventually turn into an LGBTQI story. But that’s the beauty of documentary, you never know where it’s going to lead you. Simply put, the film is a coming-of-age story that tackles themes of identity. It was a long process of gaining trust before Lilas felt comfortable sharing these struggles with me. She told me that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of other young people from the region who may be struggling with their own issues of identity, and that ended up being a huge inspiration why I made Sirens the way that it is.
What does a screening at BFI Flare mean to you?
Screening at BFI Flare is a highlight of the year! As someone who is not from the LGBTQI community, just to have the film be accepted and supported by the community is a big honor for me. Lilas and Shery were supposed to be here celebrating with us, but unfortunately they were not able to secure visas to the UK in time. To be representing their story is a privilege and a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
Who is your favourite LGBTQI on-screen figure, be it a director, an actor or a character?
I have to say John Waters! He is the ultimate rock n roll auteur who breaks all the rules, and I’m so grateful that he was the filmmaker I met when I was sixteen.
What is the importance of LGBTQI representation on-screen? What do you think the industry could do to improve positive representation?
I’m a huge advocate for all kinds of representation on screen, including LGBTQI, Arab, Muslim, people with disabilities, Black, brown, the list goes on. I believe we are only beginning to understand the effects of representation on generations to come. As the saying goes, “if you can see it, you can be it”. Thankfully, the industry is already taking steps to move the needle in the right direction. We can start by asking who’s in power? What are the criteria by which funders, festival programmers and major streamers decide which stories get funded, programmed and distributed? Who gets to tell the story? Who gets to decide which stories are valuable? The more we can address the power structure by asking these questions within the industry, the more we will start to improve positive representation.
If you could have audiences take one message from your film, what would it be and why?
Take care of one another.
Finally: what do you think the future of film looks like?
Film is such an exciting and important medium. It’s a record of human history that’s also a constantly evolving form. I think the future of film, especially documentary, will continue to be exciting as long as we can continue to interrogate the structures of power, and not fall too far into the trap of algorithm-based entertainment.
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