By Ben Falk
‘Electro Shaabi’, written and directed by Hind Meddeb
Documentary films are supposed to take us inside a world, to give us a fresh insight into its subject matter.
‘Electro Shaabi’ certainly does the former. It tells the story of the young Egyptian men who created the Mahragan, a new type of song that mixes hip-hop MC-ing with traditional local sounds, all backed by a pulsating drum beat.
These men – Oka, Ortega and MC Sadat among them – are shown to be at the forefront of a new musical movement, using lyrics to speak about the revolution and the fate of Egypt in a raw, head-on way never heard before.
They play huge street parties and weddings, their word spreading via the Internet, their frustrations about their country nailed into the rhyming couplets they spit from balconies as the crowds dance below, or in their tiny bedrooms while their grandmother watches them, sipping a cup of sweet tea.
Director Hind Meddeb does well in allowing the audience to discover this burgeoning scene and the access she gets is impressive, as she follows her subjects up onto the rooftops of Salam City, where the musicians perform among the pigeons. The soundtrack too is propulsive – Meddeb lets the music itself do much of the talking, pulling us from one location to the next.
Where she doesn’t succeed quite as well is with the “Why?”. There are suggestions that this form of music emerged much like rap did in the 80s – from a disenfranchised population desperate to tell their story. But the Arab Spring is different to the black American experience. Meddeb lets the audience draw many of its own conclusions, but this leaves the film feeling unfocused and superficial.
Meddeb speaks to lots of compelling interviewees – and tries her best to give most of them a narrative arc.
But it feels like there are a lot of competing storylines here. There’s the classic, almost Hollywood-style fate of Oka, Ortega and their friend Weza. There’s Sadat, a progressive, talented musician who gets a taste of the establishment and doesn’t really like what he sees. And several more. None of them feel entirely satisfying.
Examining the state of a post-revolutionary country through the prism of its music is a clever way to see something new, to try and understand the very people who precipitated and fuelled the coup itself.
‘Electro Shaabi’ points a camera at them, but doesn’t manage to get underneath their skin, or inside their hearts.