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Arts & Culture

Youth Rising: New Arab Cinema In a Post-Arab Spring World

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When the Arab Spring broke out, it seemed to millions of young Arabs that the winds of change would bring with it the promise of jobs, greater personal freedom and a chance to move forward as both a country and as individuals. Heady stuff for a region whose population is among the youngest in the world — in many countries, as much as 60 percent of the population is under 25.

It has been five years since the revolt broke out in Tunisia and Arab filmmaking is starting to catch up with the stories of protest, expectations, and, in some cases, the frustrated dreams of a young population trying to balance the needs of tradition and a modern state.

This past weekend, the San Diego Arab Film Festival screened several films that are important commentaries on Arab youth and their aspirations and frustrations post-revolution.

Last Saturday, “Yallah! Underground” roared into the Museum of Photographic Arts, guitars, ‘ouds and mic drops at the ready. With a young population raised on satellite TV and a whole range of sound from Egyptian singer Oum Khalthoum to Bruno Mars, there is a lot of material to mix, remix and subvert. German-Afghan filmmaker Farid Eslam, 39, has had his ear to the ground, bringing back a heady mix of music, subversive lyrics, and political commentary.

Shot mostly guerilla-style (shoot first, explain later), “Yallah” is a thrilling window into the literate, progressive music artists shaping Arab culture today.

To be a progressive musician/singer in Egypt and the Gaza Strip takes courage and not a little craziness. Many of the artists in the film like Mayaline Hage, who heads LUMI, a Lebanese electro-pop band have written work critical of their societies while others like music producer and composer Zeid Hamdan directly take on their governments — Hamdan wrote the line, “General go home,” which didn’t sit well with the Lebanese government — and have ended up in jail or detention.

Eslam has harnessed their energy and eclectic styles to create a sharp, informative documentary that, much like Duncan Bridgeman’s brilliant documentary on some of Mexico's current artists,Hecho En Mexico," blows the top off Western expectations of Arab society and suggests that this new generation is a voice the West needs to hear.

Leyla Bouzid’s gorgeous and long-awaited film, “As I Open My Eyes” screened Sunday afternoon. Bouzid, just 32, is one of Tunisia’s up and coming talents, all the more impressive because she is one of a handful of Arab women in the director’s chair. Bouzid’s debut feature has been a festival favorite both in the Arab World and on the greater festival circuit.

Like her well-known father, director Nouri Bouzid, Leyla Bouzid looks to the recent past to comment on both Tunisian society and what has changed since the Arab Spring.

Bouzid turns her sights on Tunisia just months before the Arab Spring erupts and turns out long-time president Ben Ali. Like Eslam, Bouzid finds her story in that of Farah (the gorgeous, luminous Baya Medhaffar), the 18-year-old lead singer of a politically subversive punk rock band, Joujma. Headstrong and longing for freedom and romance, Farah is about to get in huge trouble, not so much with her mother as with the State.

Bouzid takes a close look at the atmosphere that still lingers since the Arab Spring — a watchful state, and a young population looking for ways to express itself be it through music, film, dance or just living.

“As I Open My Eyes” continues in the semi-autobiographical vein that many new works coming out the New Arab Cinema seem to follow. Bouzid herself experienced what it was like to be an artist under covert surveillance by an informer for the State. What makes the film even more interesting is the beauty of the cinematography and the crackling energy that seems to run through its singer and through the lush soundtrack by Khyam Allami. It’s a fresh sound, mixing alt-rock with politically aware Rai (Algerian socially aware pop-folk music) and unexpected instruments like the Theremin.

But Bouzid’s film is much more than a trip down recent memory land- her harrowing last act suggests that the Arab Spring, for all its promise, needs careful tending by the people if it is to truly succeed.

When the uprisings rolled through the Arab World, the West seemed taken by surprise, and yet, films such as Tunisian director Moufida Tlati's’ “Silences of the Palace” and Nouri Bouzid’s “Making Of” were laying bare a society to which the winds of change would soon come.

Films like “Yallah! Underground” and “As I Open My Eyes” are also sending a message — the youth of the Arab World have seen the revolution and they are hoping it will not die, censored to death by the new old regimes that have come to power.

It’s a beautiful and compelling window these films are opening for Western audiences, one they hope the West will look through and see them for who they are.

For more information on these and other films that screened at this year's festival, please visit the San Diego Arab Film Festival site.

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