Three Queer Films at Sundance Film Festival

1 – SIRENS image
Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara in “Sirens,” a documentary about the metal band known as “Slave to Sirens.”

There are a handful of LGBTQ films screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, unspooling online January 20-30. Here are three films worth catching.

Girl Picture

This charming and romantic drama from Finland features three young women grappling with love, sex, and their very sensitive emotions. Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff), a lesbian, and her straight best friend, Rönkko (Eleonoora Kauhanen), work together at a smoothie bar. Mimmi is tough and acerbic, but when she meets Emma (Linnea Leino), a figure skater, she lets down her guard and gets romantic. Emma, whose life has been dominated by sports, falls hard in return and discovers a sense of freedom and rebellion from skating with Mimmi. Their relationship involves both young women feeling a sense of worth, but also anxiety. And as their relationship ebbs and flows, Mimmi, who has some issues with her family, and Emma, who is practicing for a big competition, determine what it is they really want.

Meanwhile, Rönkko has a series of uncomfortable sexual encounters with various guys. She often says the wrong thing when she is trying to flirt, and while she can be eager to please sexually — a sign of her own insecurity — she had difficulty experiencing pleasure. Rönkko may have found an appropriate match with Jarmo (Mikko Kauppila), a customer from the smoothie bar, but she may screw up that potential relationship too.

“Girl Picture” is enjoyable as these parallel storylines unfold, and the characters are sympathetic even if they self-sabotage. They are figuring out what they want through trial and error. Director Alli Haapasalo’s film is refreshing for allowing its heroines to make mistakes and behave badly because they are inexperienced and scared. The three leads are all engaging and come across as awkward and real, which is why the film is so gratifying.

Neptune Frost

Original does not even begin to describe “Neptune Frost,” a heady, visually stimulating, sci-fi musical extravaganza from Rwanda about gender and economic inequality, as well as the exploitation of mines (and miners), among other political topics. (One sample lyric: “Underscore the overpaid.”) The encrypted plot involves Neptune (played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo), and Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse aka Kaya Free), inspiring revolution and resistance. Neptune has an interesting encounter with a man named Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba), who discovers they are intersex, while another storyline involves the promotion of MartyrLoserKing (a play on MLK). “Neptune Frost” pulsates to a rhythmic beat and the musical sequences are fabulous. So too, are the makeup and costumes — one character sports a jacket made from a disassembled computer keyboard. It does not all work, but take in “Neptune Frost,” and absorb its messages about belonging and dissonance, as well as power and how to wield it.

Sirens

Slave to Sirens is the name of the first all-female metal band in Lebanon, and “Sirens” is director Rita Baghdadi’s affectionate documentary that traces the ups-and-downs of its co-founders, Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi.

Early scenes depict the band performing at concerts. It is electrifying to see Slave to Sirens rocking out at a club in the Middle East full of headbanging fans. When they are contacted to perform at the Glastonbury festival in the UK, it promises to be a step up for the band. As they play for about two dozen people — most of whom are appreciative — it is disappointing.

“Sirens,” however, wisely does not follow the female metalhead from gig to gig; Baghdadi instead provides a character study of Lilas and Shery. (The other bandmembers are seen throughout the film, but not prominently featured — a missed opportunity, perhaps). These two young women are practically sisters, and it is sweet when Shery gives some incense to Lilas for her birthday.

What is especially interesting, however, is the backdrop for the Middle East’s first all-female metal band. Slave to Sirens is born out of the fear and despair these (and other) young women experience living in Beirut, where there is constant uncertainty — war, instability, and unemployment. They channel their pain and rage into their music. Metal is a way for them to “be who they want to be without limits.”

Moreover, in this part of the world, there are very specific gender norms for women, and Shery and Lilas do not conform. Lilas wants her independence, and to move out her mother’s house; she also starts dating women in secret. Shery is committed to metal, but the limited audience for her music puts her at a disadvantage. “Sirens,” captures these struggles and the resiliency of these women well. It forms the heart of this poignant documentary.

Baghdadi also showcases the impact of the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut that wreaks havoc throughout the city and adds to the feelings of uncertainty. As Lilas gets involved with a potential girlfriend, a rift soon develops between her and Shery, and prompts Shery to perhaps quit the band. The two friends have an intense confrontation in front of their bandmates, and viewers will want them to patch up their differences.

“Sirens,” emphasizes this personality conflict to show the overarching difficulties of being queer and female playing metal in the Middle East. Baghdadi’s film illustrates these women’s freedom of expression — be it on stage, or for one’s self, And, that, along with the bravery of Shery and Lilas to present their lives on screen here, deserves applause.

For tickets, dates, and more information, visit https://festival.sundance.org/

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