Hidden In The Middle East’s Turmoil, This Director Found Some Amazing Underground Artists

Posted on November 1, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks


Editor’s Note: In a region full of tension, young Arab artists in the Middle East have struggled for years to express themselves freely and promote more liberal attitudes within their societies. The film, ‘Yallah! Underground’ follows some of today’s most influential and progressive artists in Arab underground culture from 2009 to 2013 and documents their work, dreams and fears in a time of great change. During the Arab Spring, like many others of this new generation, local artists had high hopes for the future and took part in the protests. However, after years of turmoil and instability, young Arabs now have to challenge both old and new problems, being torn between feelings of disillusion and a vague hope for a better future. The following are excerpts from an interview with the director, Farid Eslam.

This interview was originally published on the DIFF blog, here

You were born in Germany to immigrant parents, and have been making music videos and commercials before you decided to make ‘Yallah! Underground’. How did your background, both personal as well as professional, shape this project?

My personal background probably helped me understand people who are stuck between cultures and traditions. Or floating through life without any of them. The feeling of not belonging and finding or creating your own identity, your own space in this world, is something I was struggling with for a long time. And I think this was a connection I shared with many of the artists I have met there. My professional background definitely helped me to employ a certain visual and narrative style that feels close to the idea of an underground movement. I feel very comfortable creating visuals for music and besides the needed depth for a feature length film I also always want my shots to look fresh and appealing. Every single one of them. The real challenge for me was to create a narrative that would keep you engaged for 84 minutes, because that was complete terra incognita for me.

You started making ‘Yallah! Underground’ in 2009, but in the meantime released your feature documentary ‘Istanbul United’. Seems like it has been quite a journey – how did the project evolve, being spread out for so many years, and how did ‘Istanbul United’ fit in the picture?

I used to work as director and producer of commercials and music videos. In 2007, I decided that I wanted to do something different and started to work on a project in the Middle East that was only partially related to film. After a while I started missing film though. But I felt that I wanted to do something more meaningful than what I had been doing before. I was also stunned when I realized that my own perception of the Middle East and Arabic culture in general was completely biased through what we’re being fed by the news and media in Europe. Meeting all sorts of artists in Beirut, Cairo and Amman finally inspired me to make a film that would show audiences a different image of Arabic culture.

The idea of the Arab world we have in the West is dominated by negative images and violence and aggression. I wanted to show that this is only a fraction of reality and focus on the positive aspects of the region and the culture. I was also aware of the growing frustration among the young Arab population and how artists use their art as a tool to express their environment. Due to the ongoing developments in the region and personal commitments from my side it took much longer than I would have ever thought. ‘Istanbul United’ happened a bit like an accident. During the Egyptian revolution, I was aware of the involvement of Egyptian football fans but couldn’t focus on it since my film ‘Yallah! Underground’ was about artists. So when I and my co-director Olli Waldhauer saw that famous picture of the three Turkish football fans united in the protests in Istanbul we just knew it was a story we had to tell. And it was a welcome distraction from Yallah, because I was stuck in the narrative structure and didn’t really see a way out back then.

How did you find out about the underground scene in all the countries you passed through while shooting? What was it like to organise a film crew in all these different places?

I first got in touch with the underground scene back in 2007 when I met people like Zeid Hamdan or Rabih Salloum from Slutterhouse in Beirut. I was completely blown away by the amount of amazing musicians, creating a vast variety of different styles, some of which I had never heard before. The deeper I started digging the more amazing artists I found. People who not only were incredibly talented but also deeply inspiring. It’s basically like this, you enter one door and 10 more open up.

My approach to making a documentary film was in retrospect rather naive. I didn’t know anything about documentaries, I wouldn’t even really watch them. I was a total commercial sucker being used to big budgets and big crews. Making a documentary seemed like an easy task to accomplish. But in the end my naivety probably made the film possible the way we did it because I absolutely didn’t understand the scope of undertaking such a project. We just went and made it happen. The core team consisted of my schoolmates from FAMU, the film school in Prague. During filming it was mostly only me and my cameraman Prokop. In the beginning we were joined by our sound man Ladislav and co-producer Dana. And we had great support in Egypt from our co-producer Dina Harb and her team. Other than that we did it on our own with the help of many locals and some institutions.

Your film covers the periods before, during, and after the Arab Spring. Can you point out any striking differences – or lack thereof – between the art scene in the Middle East at the time you started filming and the present?

I think the most striking development was the rise of the Egyptian underground scene during and after the revolution. Out of a certain obscurity into the limelight. People all of a sudden wanted to see and listen to real content about real topics and issues. I think that brought a certain feeling of empowerment to many artists, and rightfully so. Also, I think there was a certain feeling of being connected between people from different Arab countries. They all share similar problems and hopes and fears. The present however, is a bit more bleak, I think. There has been a phase where many artists felt disillusioned with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, same as big parts of the population. But right now I feel that many artists concentrate on their work again, on expressing what’s wrong. The fight never stops.

You can read the full interview here.

‘Yallah! Underground’ will be screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival on Nov 8 at 3.30 PM.