Hind Meddeb’s documentary is about a group of Cairo-based musicians who have pioneered and cornered as their own the genre of ‘electro shaabi’ – a fusion of hip hop, electronic music, protest songs and Middle Eastern and Indian sounds.
Over the course of the film, the extended group begins to splinter, in particular as two of their number, Oka and Ortega, gain commercial success and begin to appear on television, in films, and elsewhere. Of course, they drop their long-standing collaborators like a stone – as per the story of commercial success from indy roots that has been told so often.
The film, however, remains with Wiza, Figo and others, especially MC Sadat, who continue to eke out an existence on the streets as performers at birthday parties, weddings and the like. Their music is often pirated (they tell a story of being ripped off by one of Egypt’s biggest film stars); and they rarely/barely see a penny for their creative endeavours. But, Oka and Ortega perhaps aside, making money is not what motivates them; telling their story is their raison d’être.
This seems also to be Meddeb’s rationale for making this film; the film has an evidently low budget, features much ‘crude’ handheld camera work, and yet captures the vibrancy of the Cairo streets.
The film culminates in MC Sadat and friends observing a march against Mohamed Morsi. It is not my place to judge these actions; Morsi may have been the first democratically elected President of Egypt, and to have had him deposed by the military may seem to an outside observer a worrying sign of anything but democracy – but however odd such events may seem to the outsider, those on the march evidently are against Morsi. And the reason that I raise this is because on the march, MC Sadat explains that those marching are ‘the people’ – and he asks how can the people be considered enemies of the nation. And yet protestors are (often) considered enemies of the nation because they do not conform to the image of that nation that someone else – typically in power – is trying to impose.
The reason that I mention this sequence is because an interesting distinction seems to be drawn here by MC Sadat, one that is perhaps enlightening beyond Electro Shaabi, and which is arguably ‘philosophical’ in nature. By in effect saying that the people and the nation are separate entities/phenomena, we gain a sense of how the people perhaps always eludes the nation.
That is, the nation is a top-down concept that is imposed upon various humans who, for whatever reason, happen to live within certain geographical boundaries during a certain period of history. The people, meanwhile, cuts across those temporal and spatial boundaries – in a fashion that cannot entirely be defined.
For so long, thinkers and politicians have tried to characterise the people according to nationality; the concept of the nation was a means to contain the rebellious libido of the people. And yet now we seem to have a sense – from MC Sadat’s interpretation of contemporary Egypt at least – that the people cannot be contained, and that the nation might well be a concept that needs refining and redefining, even if MC Sadat is referring (paradoxically) to a uniquely Egyptian situation when he raises his question about the people and the nation.
Nonetheless, what we can glean from MC Sadat in Electro Shaabi might have significance elsewhere: the people always exceeds (perhaps even disappoints) the nation, or those who seek to apply a rigid definition to what constitutes a (particular) nation at any rate. It is this excess that is their power, their source of hope, that potential for change. Long may it elude definition…
A final aside: the film definitely embraces the utopian potential of digital technology, with musicians using free software to make their music, and online video sites to share their music. Although the story of Egypt is far from finished, there remains hope when we know that people like MC Sadat are still out there, and that they will not (they say) be nullified by the bright possibility of becoming light, of becoming cinema, as happens to Oka and Ortega.
Instead, MC Sadat and friends elude the ‘cinematic’ in the sense of glossy, beautiful/beatified images, and instead belong to that other aesthetic that is ‘cinema’s’ necessary but neglected twin, the non-cinema that is low grade images, low grade sound, but all the more real because achieved in a guerrilla fashion. An intriguing film.