Middle East music documentary Yallah! Underground screens at Diff
The cameras expose the heart of the Middle East’s thriving, fractured alternative music scene in Yallah! Underground – an important documentary that had its regional premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival on Friday and gets a free outdoor screening on The Beach at JBR on Tuesday, December 15.
It’s a grand stage for such marginalised subject matter – but the film offers a suitably broad canvas, which takes the viewer on a four-year journey from Beirut to Cairo, Amman to Ramallah, through oppression, revolution and beyond.
Along the way, we meet musicians such as Lebanon’s Zeid Hamdan, who was locked up by his government in 2011 after the old song, General Suleiman, was deemed defamatory to the then-president Michel Suleiman.
Shot guerrilla-style, the rough hand-held footage captures musicians in their home environments, jamming in front rooms and on balconies.
Unlikely stars emerge in Jordanian guitarist Mahmoud Radaideh, Egyptian hip-hop group Arabian Knightz and Palestinian visual artist Amer Shomali. Throughout, you can almost smell the conviction.
“Music is my passion,” says Egyptian metal-turned-jazz trailblazer Ousso Lotfy. “Without it I don’t think my life is worth anything.”
The word “underground” is as evocative in a musical context as it is divisive. The film’s director, Farid Eslam, was looking for artists “not of the mainstream, who express their environment”.
In short, original voicers fighting to say something new. One telling clip shows Jordan-based Palestinian rapper Ostaz Samm, aka Samm the Teacher, dividing the opinions of judges on Arabs Got Talent.
The “underground” is a scene bubbling under the surface – and rapping on regional television, Samm is a fish pulled up and gasping for air.
Culled from an estimated 800 hours of footage, Yallah! zeroes in on the stories of more than a dozen musicians battling prejudice, censorship and traditions to forge not just a fresh sound, but a way of life.
As a portrait of marginalised youth, and the birth of art in harsh surroundings, it’s fascinatingly insightful. However, fans have found it easy to criticise the film’s scope – why feature this artist, but not that one, they ask?
Eslam estimates he interviewed more than 70 musicians, fewer than 20 of whom appear in the finished film, a compromise that was both practical and personal.
“It was painful selecting who was in the film,” says the 38-year-old. “Some of my favourite bands – not just from the region, but ever – didn’t make it in.
“It was often about how much footage we had – but it also had to be based on personal taste. I don’t like techno – or metal.”
Eslam, whose previous credits include last year’s political football documentary Istanbul United, hatched the idea for the film during a two-year stint working commercially in the region.
Living in Beirut, Cairo and Amman shattered many preconceptions that the director, who is of Afghan heritage, had while growing up in Europe.
“I got to meet a lot of the artists. I realised how biased my own idea of the region was,” he adds.
“As a second-generation immigrant kid in Germany, it was shocking that even my perception was biased – it was what most westerners think of the region, an image very related to violence, aggression and fanaticism.
“My main intention was to show a western audience a different image of contemporary young Arab culture. A lot of people just don’t know the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist.”
Filming began in 2009, and initially wrapped in late 2010.
“Then three weeks later, the Arab Spring started,” says Eslam. The script was torn up and shooting resumed in fits and starts. Crew on the ground contributed hours of gritty camera-phone footage of the Egyptian Revolution. More artists were interviewed and filming went on until 2013.
Once only implicitly political, regional unrest placed the film a wider cultural context. Since debuting in Switzerland in April, Yallah! Underground has gone on to screen at almost 20 festivals. It seems to have met the filmmaker’s modest education goals – one thing most audiences ask for is a soundtrack. It’s in the pipeline.
“Nearly all the feedback we’ve had is that people had no idea this kind of thing is happening – that ultimately, we all want the same things,” adds Eslam.
“With a documentary, there’s only a limited audience you can reach, but if you can change the perception of only a handful of people, it’s great. And if this is my little drop, it’s fantastic.”
Yallah! Underground screens on The Beach at JBR on Tuesday, December 15 at 7pm. Entry is free
Updated: December 14, 2015 04:00 AM