Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Crossing borders

A film you come out of feeling that underground music can reinvent society, reform culture and change political attitudes, writes Soha Hesham

Crossing borders
Crossing borders
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Afghani-German filmmaker Farid Eslam’s 2015 Yallah Underground drew a larger audience than the Zawya art house could accommodate last week. Coproduced by Dina Harb, Dana Wilson and Jeffrey Brown, it received funding from Germany, the Czech Republic, the UK, the US and Canada as well as Egypt.

Of the same loose family as Ahmed Abdalla’s 2010 fiction Microphone, the 80 min documentary focuses on the role of underground musicians in social and political change. Filmed over four years in 2009-2013 and emphasising the contrast before and after 2011 – with unnecessarily long sequences of Tahrir Square during the revolution – Yallah Underground uses the vision of musicians to trace the Arab Spring and its aftermath in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

Eslam, 39, made his debut in 2014: Istanbul United. Co-directed with Oliver Waldhauer, the documentary follows how football fans team up against police brutality in Turkey; it was nominated for the Best Documentary Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival that year.

In Yallah Underground he intercuts the young musician interviews with live performances, somewhat confusingly since it isn’t always clear at what point in time the scene is unfolding.

One of the film’s heroes is Zeid Hamdan, “the grandfather of alternative music” in Lebanon, whose band Zeid and the Wings is widely seen as pioneering in the field. In his relaxed interview all through the film, Hamdan focuses on oppression, war and uncertainty within the Arab world’s “schizophrenic culture”, fluctuating between an ultra-conservative facade and a fascination with sex and drink. Hamdan faced the ultimate nightmare when, following his song General Suleiman about the then president Michel Suleiman, he was arrested for insulting the head of state and subsequently moved to the US.

In Amman we meet the rapper Ostaz Samm, who became famous after participating in a reality TV show. Ostaz Samm too came under attack; he was repeatedly told that rap is against religion and rappers go to hell but it didn’t stop him. His elderly parents, who also appear in the film, have been supportive.

In another sequence, the Egyptian singer Donia Massoud is rehearsing with the Palestinian-Egyptian musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and they both speak, voicing various opinions. Massoud, for example, says that if the west needs a (Muslim or Arab) enemy, that has nothing to do with her.

Another singer, Maii Waleed Yassin, highlights the predicament of Egyptian women and how difficult it is for a girl to leave her parents’ house and live on her own, though in her case – because she travelled from Alexandria to Cairo to pursue her career – the process was relatively smooth. Maii also appears in 2013, at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power; and she is considering leaving the country to escape Islamist control.

Demonstrating these younger musicians’ attitudes, the film highlights the generational aspect of the Arab Spring – how a young generation’s rejection of tyranny also tyrannises an older generation by passing too harsh a judgment and making generalisations – and in this sense it’s as much about politics as music.

The film also raises questions about the politics of music: an Egyptian radio presenter discusses individuality and the mainstream; a woman rocker discusses the banning of rock music as “Satanic”, the difficulty of maintaining that kind of lifestyle, and how rockers managed to found an alternative music festival in 2006.

Though not a musician, the film also features the Palestinian artist Amer Shomali, who shifts smoothly between forms, with an academic background in architecture and (with the Canadian director Paul Cowan) an animation film, The Wanted 18, to his name. He is also a graphic designer, painter and cartoonist. Shomali shows two versions of a “Visit Palestine”: one before the occupation with a beautiful natural scene; and another showing an enormous wall.

The Arab-Israeli singer Walaa Sbait from Haifa gives a bold rap performance, without music, about war, peace, terrorism and how words of a song can be more powerful than bullets.

With dizzying camera movements by director of photography Prokop Soucek and fast editing by Jakub Vomacka, the film nonetheless manages to feel too long. But, other than that, it presented its artists beautifully.

add comment

  • follow us on