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An Interview with Farid Eslam

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  • October 14, 2015

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An Interview with Farid Eslam
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Farid graduated from FAMU in Prague, and has years of experience in directing and producing commercials and award-winning music videos and documentaries. He has worked all over Europe and the Middle East as director, producer and creative director. His work focuses on youth culture and social issues. 

DIFF 2015 will see the Indian premiere of his feature documentary, Yallah! Underground.

Farid Eslam
Farid Eslam

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 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.

Since you shot for such a long period and covered a large geographical area, I can imagine it being very difficult to maintain a continuity, that would connect the different musicians. How did you go about editing this film?

The editing process was a nightmare and I couldn’t have done it without my editor Jakub Vomacka. The main problem was that the original concept was created in 2009 and we finished filming in December 2010, just a few weeks before the Arab Spring really hit it off. From then on I had to react to the turn of events, always scraping together money to continue filming, but without having a significantly new concept. Another problem was that there was never enough money for proper development or research. Every time I got some money we would go and film every interesting artist we could get our hands on. So we ended up with absolutely insane amounts of footage that needed to be transcribed and prepared. I tried to edit different versions based on my old concept just to realize that nothing worked. So at one point Jakub and I started creating a completely new concept just on paper and spent about 2 months creating a narrative based on topics. Then we took bits and pieces from each artist and threw them into our topic-based concept. And then we started filtering out the artists that would drive the narrative best, both by their interviews, art and situations we filmed them in. The artists that made it into the film are only about 15% of all artists we actually filmed. And then we started editing.

 

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.

When you started this film, you met and filmed many other artists other than musicians – tell us about the decision to leave all those out of the film and focus on music. Do you plan to use the material you left out for another project?

I decided to focus mainly on music because I felt it’s the most direct way to communicate certain issues on both rational and emotional levels. Music combined with lyrics has this direct impact that can communicate thoughts and emotions even to people who don’t understand the lyrics. Given the amount of artists featured in the film there just wouldn’t be the time to let somebody explain their theatre play or painting.

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.

 

Do you have any projects lined up for the future?

I always work on multiple projects. Film-wise I started working on my first fiction feature a few months ago. It’s closely connected to my own family history and deals with political oppression. But I’m still too terrified by the scope of the project to discuss it in public.


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