“We have four social segments in Egypt: the poorer than poor, the poor, the middle class and the upper class,” says Ortega from the back of a car in Cairo. “We are happy to be part of the poorer than poor, but we do and sing as we want.”
The camera cuts to his bandmate Okka.
“Do you know why our music is called shaabi? It’s not because of the rhythms, the rhythms exist in all genres. It’s called shaabi because it comes from the people — it represents the people, it’s the music of the poor.”
A Playboy bunny decal on the window behind him bobs ironically in the background as the car crawls through traffic. This is our introduction to the three stars of Salma El Tarzi’s feature-length documentary “Underground/On the Surface.” They’re the hit maharganat crew Tamenya Fel Maya (8%).
Tarzi shadows the musicians over a year as they rapidly rise to fame in a country spiraling out of control. When she began filming in November 2011, Okka was 20, Ortega 22 and DJ Wezza 30. They had already achieved stardom on the internet and streets with breakthrough songs like “Haty Boussa Ya Bet” (Give me a kiss, girl). Tarzi’s entrance into their lives was perfectly timed: she caught them when they were still unaware they had any fame beyond their neighborhood of Matareya. They were starting their journey to where they are now: landing lucrative Mobinil ads, appearing in films, and consistent gigs in Egypt and the Gulf.
She uses a fly-on-the-wall approach, accompanying them through humor-filled shopping trips, recording sessions, shaabi weddings, street festivals in Aswan, meetings with the shiny moneyman who brokers the Mobinil deal, and endearing D-CAF prep sessions with producer Mahmoud Refat.
The film is void of talking heads, and we rarely feel Tarzi, except for the occasional conversational question from behind her camera. She manages to make herself almost invisible, leaving the stage to the young men behind the music. This gives an intimate feel, as if she is an old friend who just happened to be filming in the background as these young men skyrocket to stardom.
This approach might be a result of Tarzi’s experience with citizen journalism, and the idea of always keeping the cameras rolling. She is a founding member of Mosireen, the citizen journalist collective of filmmakers and activists.
It’s evident that Tarzi spent time with the musicians. She says she spent almost five days a week with them over one and a half years of shadowing, but only shot 70 days’ worth of footage — the rest of the time she was researching, shadowing and befriending them.
With almost no budget and only a flip camera for the first half of shooting, Tarzi’s first film is as rugged and lo-fi as the mahraganat music itself. It almost seems to mirror the musicians’ evolution: as they rise to fame and acquire better equipment, Tarzi eventually gets a grant and thus a 6D camera, which lends a certain polish to the film’s second half.
“I was a filmmaker who is not a cameraman, who did not get an official training in camera work, who was experimenting with this camera, as much as they were very talented musicians who have no education in music and are experimenting with anything they have,” she says. “So we developed together throughout the film.”
Tarzi captures the crew’s conscious enthusiasm for DIY and open sourcing, rigging microphones to produce their signature auto-tune effect or building their own stages by means of Wezza’s modest events production company. It’s like in the early days of rap, when producers would rip off beats and samples to create music. The crew’s creation process is also recorded in scenes of Okka laying down tracks using pirated programs like FruityLoops, and Wezza or Ortega adding vocals and input in their home studio or at Wezza’s shop.
Despite the flip camera, there are stunning shots throughout the film. The most resonant is a scene of what looks to be a shirtless, sweaty rave but is actually a street wedding. Tarzi, using her journalistic intuition to make her presence that of an observer, captures hundreds of young men huddled around and pouring water pouring fiercely on each other in a mosh-pit like ritual of intensity mixed with the pure joy losing oneself to the rhythm of the dance floor. The footage is played in slow motion, and you can feel the energy, angst and escapism as their faces contort and bodies rage to the music.
Revolution and politics are rarely mentioned and remain only part of the background in election street posters. At one point Ortega asks Okka and Wezza who they’re voting for. Okka waves this off: “Even when Mubarak was here, he wasn’t going to help us. We can only help ourselves.”
“We don’t care who comes here next, anyone who sits in the chair forgets everything anyway,” says Wezza.
Despite their apparent apathy towards the political events surrounding them, Tarzi suggests they are nonetheless political through their sheer existence.
“When I started with them, I had a lot of theories about their political stance or lack of it — and this is one side of the arrogance of the revolution in thinking that everyone who is poor is for the revolution,” she says. “It was a very big learning process and slap in the face to realize I was completely wrong — their theory then was they were always marginalized and never thought they were part of this country to begin with.”
“They are revolutionary in their own right — I think one of the mistakes that we are making is thinking that a revolution is a revolution only in regards to the political slogans and activity, however if the society is not revolutionized each in their own domain then we are as good as none.”
The film is an honest and insightful window into the lives of these pioneering musicians, and I recommend everyone who’s interested in the lives behind the music watch it. Not least, it succeeds in asking two very important questions: what is mainstream and what is revolutionary?