Over the years, young Arab artists have encountered many challenges in freely expressing their political opinions. The Arab Spring was a great turning point not only in the course of political events, but also in the lives of these young artists. Arab revolutions witnessed the birth of many underground bands that surfaced after years of restriction and oppression—the uprisings empowered these bands to promote their liberal opinions within their societies.
Director Farid Eslam decided to tour the Arab world searching for artists who produce music in different genres to mainstream culture as he believes that documenting the difficulties that underground artists face would be one of the best ways to listen to their stories and become closer to them. And so, Yallah! Underground was born.
The film captures some of today’s most important and progressive Arab underground artists throughout a period of rapid change from 2009 to 2013.
Yallah! Underground was given a special screening at Zawya art house cinema on 28 August and captured the attention of audiences in the days following.
“My main reason for making this film was the fact that I realised that even I—the son of immigrants who grew up in a multicultural environment in Germany—was biased towards Arabs and Arab society in general,” Farid said. “I wanted to show Western audiences a different image of young Arabs than what the media deems most prevalent—mostly violence and religious fanaticism.”
The film features a large number of underground artists including Zeid Hamdan, Marc Codsi, and Mayaline Hage from Lebanon; Shadi Zaqtan from Palestine; Maii Waleed, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Ousso Lotfy, Karim Adel Eissa AKA Rush from Egypt; and Ostaz Sam from Jordan.
The crew includes filmmakers from around the globe such as Dana Wilson, Dina Harb, and Jeffrey Brown as a co-producers, Prokop Soucek as a photography director, Jakub Vomacka as an editor, Ladislav Greiner as the sound mixer, and Karel Havlicek as the sound designer.
“This film was my first experience in filmmaking,” said Harb, one of the co-producers of the film. “The initial plan was to produce a documentary about underground artists to explore their lives and their talent. After we finished filming at the end of 2010, the Arab Spring began. Artists are sensitive, meaning that the work they produce is directly influenced and affected by the current circumstances in their countries. Therefore, we realised that we need to restart filming with all those people to see how the revolutions influenced their artistry. The main idea of the film started to take a different direction, before and during the change.”
The team shot footage with a huge number of artists—creating enough footage for three or four films in fact; however, they couldn’t feature all of them in the film. “I mainly chose young artists and musicians as protagonists because they articulate their stories and the difficulties they have to cope with in an artistic and expressive way. Their work is often about complex social, political, or personal topics,” Eslam noted.
In addition to limited screen time, the type of music the artists produce was another criterion for selecting the bands that were featured in the film. Due to the different social, political, and security concerns in the Arab world, the filmmakers encountered a great deal of challenges and difficulties while shooting the film.
“On the ground, our crew didn’t exceed four people so each of us had to play multiple roles at times. For example, Eslam had to focus on directing, photography, and sound all at the same time—we found this very challenging. A second challenge was travelling to many Arab countries during such unsettled periods and being in the middle of unstable situations in more than one country,” Harb explained.
The film participated in a number of international festivals, including the Warsaw Film Festival, Bergen International Film Festival, Oaxaca Filmfest, Raindance Film Festival London, Festival International du Film Nancy-Lorraine, !f Istanbul Film Festival, and many others.
It also received several reputable awards, such as the 2015 Hessian Film Award for Best Documentary in Frankfurt, Germany; the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Chicago CIMMfest 2016; and the Grand Prix for Best Film at the Gaspe Vues Sur Mer Festival in Canada.
An important theme in the documentary is intercultural understanding, which according to Eslam is more important today than ever. There is widespread mistrust, and often fear, of Arabs in the Western world. Most of the news is about war and violent activities, which results in the perception of the whole region as violent, hostile, and culturally backwards. A lot of liberal young Arabs and Muslims in the Arab world, as well as in the US and Europe, are very aware of these prejudices, which often create a feeling of isolation.
The film put a particular focus on female independent artists in Egypt, the difficulties they encounter due to gender discrimination, and society’s mistaken stereotypes. “As we are mainly targeting international audiences, we aimed to break the stereotype they have about Arab women. We wanted people to understand that there is no use of thinking about how women dress or what they look like, as long as they are productive in their societies. It’s better to focus on their real problems,” Harb explained.
For the filmmakers, variation in the genres of art they presented was important. Although they dedicated this film to music and song—as audiences are more likely to take notice of this genre than other arts like graffiti or sculpture—they believe it is also important to produce more films to tackle the struggles of other artists who don’t receive as much attention as musicians.
“After our film screening in Zawya, we have a plan to target other outlets such as cultural centres and universities. This will be our next step after getting to the public audience,” she said.
In addition, Harb is continuing to work on her innovative project “Birthmark Scenario” which targets young writers who want to develop their first feature films. In her opinion, young filmmakers face two main problems: the first is the lack of information about screenwriting in Egypt, as many educational institutes are weak and the majority of the available materials on the internet are not available in Arabic. Thus, if an aspiring young screenwriter doesn’t have a second language, he would encounter a huge hassle when trying to learn from tutorials on the internet.
The second problem revolves around the difficulties young filmmakers encounter when they want to get in touch with professionals or enter the creative industry market.
“We allow young artists to send us initial drafts of their scripts and we develop these into feature-length films under the supervision of experienced scriptwriters such as Wael Hamdy and Mariam Naoom. Then, we introduce these young people to the industry and allow them to learn from professionals. I teach them and help them sell their work. However, unfortunately, I am unable do this on a large scale as it requires a lot of effort and dedication,” she said.