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Film of the Week: Yallah! Underground

Filmmaker Farid Eslam started working on his documentary project Yallah! Underground three years before a wave of unrest swept through the Middle East and North Africa. Set to premiere in Autumn 2012, Yallah! Underground examines the enormous diversity of musicians and artists in the region. While their work has been to a varying degree suppressed by tradition and politics, their role and reach may now be bolstered by the Arab Spring.


Filmmaker Farid Eslam developed Yallah! Underground at the 2009 Ex Oriente Film and pitched it at the 2009 East European Forum.


Yallah! Underground

Director: Eslam Farid
Producer: Eslam Farid
Production company: Mind Riot Media s.r.o., Mortal Coil Media, FAMU - Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague

Yallah! Underground , Czech Republic, 80 min, 35 mm, HD, Arts and Culture, Creative, Culture, Current Affairs, Music, Portrait, Reportage, Social Issues, Society, Youth Documentary

2011. Young Arabs have taken their anger and discontent to the streets of almost every major city of the Middle East and North Africa. They have brought an acute awareness of the need for change in Arab countries. But most of the world is still wondering. Who are these people? What do they want? How do they envision the future of their societies? In order to understand the dreams, conflicts and life situations of these young people, we will introduce young contemporary artists from different cities in the Middle East. These artists represent a new generation of Arabs who seamlessly integrate aspects of different cultures and philosophies into their lifestyle and their work. The cultural, social and political environments and the conflicts they have to face on a personal and professional basis heavily influence their art, creating a truly progressive and conscious underground culture; and whereas this culture may have gone unnoticed before, it too is changing and becoming increasingly visible in every major city in the region, making the Middle East one of the culturally most vibrant regions of today’s world.

Interview with Farid Eslam about Yallah! Underground
by Magda Španihelová

You kept going back to the Middle East and Africa for more than two years to take in the local underground music scene. How did the Arab Spring events affect the perception of music, did the local underground scene manage to rise closer to the surface?

Thanks to the Arab Spring, underground music in the Middle East definitely got out to a much broader audience. A lot of young Arabs no longer want to listen to the same old songs on love and search for something more meaningful in arts, which they find with alternative artists who aren't afraid to voice their frustration in their work. Many of these alternative artists have taken active part in the rallies and other events related to the revolution, which provided a certain platform for them. And, of course, you'll find a lot of artists now whose work didn't really carry any political or social relevance prior to the revolution but who are now trying to join the bandwagon.


How did you get access to the musicians and artists? Did you know any of them before the shoot? Did any locals help you on the spot?

We first did a thorough research and contacted people whom I'd already known (I have worked in the area since 2007). A few contacts would then open the door to many other artists and institutions. We got around pretty much on our own once we were there but we had great production support in Egypt from our partners at Birthmark Films. And a number of institutions helped us out with accommodations, for example, the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, the Goethe Institut in Alexandria, and the Royal Film Commission and the Safar Fund in Jordan.


When did you go there for the last time? What was the atmosphere like in the capitals? Has the enthusiasm waned?

Our last trip was in early December, we went to Cairo and then to a number of places in Europe. It was a huge difference compared to our previous trip in October 2010. On the one hand you felt this incredible hope and creative energy. People felt they were finally able to take control of their own lives and take part in building a new Egypt. A lot of new projects in music and theatre were cropping up... On the other hand you also felt a great deal of uncertainty and paranoia. People aren't sure about the future, they feel like certain political forces are trying to take over. There's a lot of chaos and violence in the streets. People fear that foreign powers (USA, Israel and Europe being the usual suspects) are trying to manipulate Egypt. In some parts of the city, it wasn't too easy to walk around with a camera, unlike last year when it wasn't exactly legal but no one cared. This time, even ordinary people were yelling at us, which was an expression of such paranoia.


Your major goal was to uncover the modern nature of contemporary Arab society, to go against prejudice and upset the sweeping perception of Arab culture as one that is unchanging and closely tied with religious fundamentalism. You've seen that young Arab people reject traditional, official Arab culture because it leaves no room for self-expression.

The Arab Spring has helped a lot of young Arabs feel a stronger sense of identity. Young Arabs are now hard judges of their own culture and finally see that it's possible to create their own contemporary culture without relying on either tradition or Western trends. And while these developments existed even well before January 2011 - after all, that's why we started making this film - it seems that the general feeling of confidence, self-empowerment and identity is much more widespread than three years ago when we started making the film.


What stage is the film in now, for when do you plan its premiere?

We finished shooting in December 2011 and we've started the post-production. We plan to have the rough cut by March and premiere in Autumn 2012.


Are you considering taking a slightly different distribution route, screening the film in, let's say, music clubs?

As far as distribution, we'll work with our co-production partners to find a way to deliver the film to the target audience. On top of cinemas, we want to organize various events that will include a film screening, concerts by various bands and maybe even workshops.