Baghdadi does a magnificent job of portraying Slave to Sirens as both young men and women in the Middle East navigating under the constant threat of oppression. She balances these themes, taking care never to isolate or differentiate her subjects. Rather, she lets the reality of everyday life inform their individual choices and struggles.
Baghdadi spends a lot of time on Mayassi, who teaches music at a primary school by day and lives on the outskirts of Beirut with her mother and younger brother. The film includes a number of interactions between Mayassi and her mother, who share a warm and humorous relationship underpinned by tension. Mayassi wants to move out, but her mother won’t accept it, citing the tradition that a girl doesn’t leave her mother until she is married and bearing children. Mayassi, who hides her queer identity from her family, defies custom. “What time are we? ” she asks. “You talk like it’s the 1960s, when your mom had so many kids, they didn’t even know each other. People got married based on a photograph. Her stoic, quick-witted mother retorts, “Now people are getting married on the internet. So you mean life has evolved?
Traces of news broadcasts act as ominous narrators during these domestic vignettes. During one, Mayassi sits in the family living room while the voice of a presenter escapes from the television: “Article 534 of the law is vague. He says that any sexual relationship contrary to the laws of nature is punishable by one year in prison. Later, Mayassi and her mother listened to a report about local group Mashrou ‘Leila, which has been targeted by religious authorities and sent death threats for publicly supporting gay and transgender rights. Mayassi, downtrodden after the lackluster reception of Slave to Sirens at Glastonbury, stares wordlessly at the TV, perhaps imagining a bleak future for her band and for herself as a queer woman in Lebanon. Across the room, an expression of icy concern spreads over her mother’s face.
The scene is subtle but integral. In a few images, Baghdadi captures the independent fears of a mother and daughter, both emanating from political censorship but manifesting in distinct nightmares. The eldest Mayassi fears the loss of her daughter; Lilac fears the erasure of her very being. In the next scene, the band members are notified of a show cancellation – the venue cannot accommodate metal bands, a common hurdle in a country that once banned Metallica and Nirvana albums. “I don’t think there is real freedom of expression in Lebanon,” Mayassi said at one point. “I was going online and watching our videos, and people were calling us sluts or whores… Anytime a woman wants to be something other than what society wants, that’s always a problem.”