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Hot Docs Films Review – ‘And Still I Sing’ & ‘Sirens’

These two films, which recently screened at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, are focused on female artists and women’s rights in the Middle East and central Asia. With the recent news of a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court, which indicates that the court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision which protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion, these films are timely and unsettling.

And Still I Sing, directed by Fazila Amiri, takes place in 2021 with its central action around a TV singing competition called Afghan Star, a version of American Idol in Afghanistan. It’s never been won by a female singer, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the history of women’s rights in that country.

The film focuses on three women: Aryana Sayeed, who is Afghanistan’s most famous singer, a TV personality and an activist for women’s rights; Sadiqa Madadgar, a law student and contestant on Afghan Star; and Zahra Elham, also a contestant and a friendly rival of Sadiqa. Sadiqa and Zahra vie for the title of Afghan Star against a number of male contestants. Aryana Sayeed is the lone female judge, openly rooting for a female winner.

This film is nominally about the singing competition, but primarily about women’s rights. Amiri’s portrait of women’s rights in a fundamentalist theocracy is chilling.

Aryana is the film’s central figure, given her celebrity and activism. As essentially the only internationally-known Afghan entertainer and a leading voice for Afghan women, she is both loved and despised. She has many adoring fans, but has also had a fatwa issued against her. Shockingly, much of the hatred toward her centers on a dress that she wore on television that was “nude” in color. As she explains, this led to five mullahs declaring, “Whoever brings this woman’s head will ascend to heaven immediately.”

Sadiqa is a fierce competitor, eager for recognition, equality for women, and for her country to modernize. Zahra is younger and generally more demure. Both women are talented singers of Afghan pop music, singing songs that express traditional values. They are modest and wear hijabs. But still, both are derided as whores for participating in Afghan Star. Sadiqa, for instance, can’t rent an apartment without a husband or male family member to sign the lease.

Zahra ultimately wins the competition, but the women of Afghanistan will most certainly lose. The film ends with the recent U.S. withdrawal of troops from the country. The director includes footage of the airport, then known as Hamid Karzai International, with people chasing planes on the tarmac, desperate to flee the country ahead of the Taliban’s return. Following the U.S. pullout, the Taliban stunningly retook control of the country in a week’s time.

With Afghanistan again under retrograde Taliban rule, the country is no longer safe for artists and women. These three women have sought refuge in other countries, essentially living in exile. Aryana Sayeed can never return to Afghanistan as long as the Taliban are in power.

In contrast to And Still’s overtly issue-driven story, Sirens, executive produced by Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph’s Animal Pictures, is a more intimate relationship story that takes place in an extraordinary setting. Lilas and Shery are the guitarists in a metal band in Beirut, Lebanon called Slave to Sirens. Director Rita Baghdadi captures their story as the two women explore their sexuality and struggle to make a go in the music business.  Lilas is wild, arrogant and uncompromising, with menacing tangles of curly black hair. Shery is equally fierce, but quieter and more vulnerable, her smooth, glistening mane cracking like a whip on stage.

Being a female metal band from Lebanon is pretty novel, and their band get invited to play at Glastonbury. They shag ass all the way to the Salisbury Plains of England, only to get what appears to be the 9am time slot. At one point, the singer screams, “I want to fucking see your heads banging!” Cut to a crowd shot and there’s like four dudes in cargo shorts and a girl with a fanny pack.

The disintegrating romantic relationship between Lilas and Shery negatively impacts the dynamic of the band. Shery eventually leaves, Lilas emotionally bullying her out the door.

Shery, on her own and pondering her next move, has some supportive interactions with male confidants. An unidentified guy at a club who appears to be a friend offers, “You know the problem when you’re an all female band? You don’t have reserves.” Shery looks nonplussed, as he continues, “Male bands, if they fight with a guitarist, they just get another.”

Putting an even finer point on the matter, an older man who might be Shery’s father opines, “If you went into pop music you’d be famous now. Your style is not supported here. Here in the Middle East you are the 1% that likes thrash metal.”

Lilas takes up with a Syrian girl she’s met online. She doesn’t want her mother to know they are lovers. Throughout the film her mother tries to be supportive, but Lilas seems stuck in a rock-n-roll rebellion phase. There’s a great scene in which, after a tense interaction with Lilas, Mom is hitting tennis balls against a wall in the middle of the night.

Lilas’s mother’s concern isn’t directly addressed, but in one scene a TV news report regarding Lebanese law is heard as part of the ambient noise. “Article 534 of the law is vague. It says that any sexual relation that ‘contradicts the laws of nature’ is punishable up to one year in prison.”

At several moments in the film, Baghdadi inserts a b-roll cityscape shot overlooking the port in Beirut. The climax of the film is eyewitness video, from a similar perspective shown in slow motion, of a massive explosion that took place in a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate and fireworks. First we see the fireworks exploding, then the impact of the blast radiates out across the city. The August 4, 2020 event was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killing 137 people, injuring thousands, and leading the Lebanese people to question their government.

In the aftermath, Lilas and Shery express hopelessness and helplessness. Nothing feels safe. But in the end, the girls appear to take it in stride. The band gets back together. The film wraps with them talking self-consciously about partying and making out, as a political demonstration moves by and around them.

Sirens presents the state of women’s rights as the background in Lebanon, as the operating system these women live in. Still, they go about their lives, pursuing their rock-n-roll dreams and navigating the culture into which they were born. And Still I Sing presents the issues up front, the stories of the protagonists illustrating the sorry state of affairs for women in Afghanistan. As the United States appears to toy with authoritarian theocracy, these two films represent a cautionary tale.

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