'Yallah! Underground': Dubai Review

Courtesy of Dubai International Film Festival
Its fresh, outspoken perspective on the Mideast crisis makes this music documentary stand out.

Alternative Arab music is depicted as a force for radical change in the Middle East.

German-born documentarist Farid Eslam examines the ongoing Middle East revolutions and their aftermath through the eyes of young musicians — rockers, rappers, rebels and alternatives — in Yallah! Underground. Their refreshingly cool point of view bridges the gap with Western sensibilities and offers young audiences, in particular, a behind-the-scenes look at the sea changes taking place in social attitudes. Shot over a four-year period, the film was funded in Germany, the Czech Republic, Egypt, the U.K., Canada and the U.S. While Eslam's bits-and-pieces approach to filming the musicians is acceptable, and perhaps inevitable given their geographic separation, what’s missing is a big final clincher that would strengthen an overly mellow ending.Yallah! has anyway proved a popular festival item this year, and its outspokenness should send a drumbeat to the young Arab audiences it primarily targets.

Eslam’s acclaimed first film Istanbul United, co-directed with Olli Waldhauer, showed how fans of rival soccer teams came together to protest against the Turkish government, overcoming their bitter differences in the name of a common cause. Here, instead it's music cutting across borders, uniting Arab musicians from Egypt to Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and even Israel.

A little disappointingly, the focus is not on live performances and there are only small snatches of informal and concert material. What abounds are off-the-cuff interviews, and the person who emerges most prominently is music producer Zeid Hamdan, called the "grandfather of Lebanese alternative music." He talks about the themes of war, separation, broken dreams and uncertainty in a schizophrenic Arab culture that veers between conservative repression, and ads pitching drinking and sex.

The women in Mideast rock point to their personal struggle against the stereotyped sexiness expected of them, but have no intention of relinquishing their piercings and mini-skirts. Meanwhile, an Egyptian DJ finds himself caught between the traditional call to prayer on the one hand, and a new concept — born of the Internet —  of individuality and the right to express oneself. In Amman, a hip hop artist who lives with his supportive elderly parents has been told that rap goes against religion. This doesn’t stop him from being extremely popular on a TV show. Similarly, Egypt once banned rock as Satanic, but rockers went on to found an alternative music festival in 2006.

There are a lot of outspoken views to chew on, but the film suffers from dizzying time shifts as it jumps from material filmed between 2010 and 2013, before and after the Arab Spring transformed Egypt and Tunisia. A long sequence of anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square seems dated and unnecessary.

True to its genre, the style favors handheld camerawork, unmotivated close-ups and zooms, and rapid-fire editing. Yet there are also some spectacular images that cut to the heart of the region, obviously accompanied by great music from some of the most influential bands around.

Production companies: Mind Riot Media, Mortal Coil Media, Birthmark Films, FAMU

Cast: Zeid Hamdan, Shadi Zaqtan, Maii Waleed Yassin, Karim Adel Eissa, Ousso Lotfy, Marc Codsi, Mayaline Hage Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Walaa Sbeit, Ibrahim Farouk  

Director, screenwriter: Farid Eslam

Producers: Farid Eslam, Dina Harb, Dana S. Wilson

Director of photography: Prokop Soucek

Editor: Jakub Vomacka

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights) 

85 minutes

Arab and English dialogue