'It Ain’t Where You From': Director from Dubai captures the soul of Arab street art community in new film

The documentary is screening online as part of the UK’s Shubbak Festival

The UK's largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, Shubbak Festival, returns to London this week, with a hybrid programme of in-person and digital exhibitions, gigs and film screenings.

Debuting on Wednesday is filmmaker and dancer Philip Rachid's documentary, It Ain't Where You From, which will give audiences an insight into the regional street art community.

Streaming daily at 5pm BST from the festival's website until July 17, the 30-minute film takes the audience from Beirut to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where through interviews and monologues, you encounter some of the dancers, rappers and artists that make up the Middle East's street art community.

The film completes a goal Rachid, a Dutch hip-hop dancer known as Soul Trotter and director of 2012 Kurdish film Zol'a, gave himself when arriving in Dubai a decade ago.

As well as working as a director for commercials, he wanted to advance the UAE street art community.

"I first started doing that by setting up and consulting in certain B-Boy events," he tells The National. "Since I always have my camera with me, I thought it would be great to document some of those experiences."

A way of expression

While the idea for a film came to him more than five years ago, the production of It Ain't Where You From began in earnest in the summer of 2019 after it was co-commissioned by Shubbak Festival and The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi.

"The film is really about the challenge of pursuing your dream," Rachid says.

"And this is particularly difficult when it comes to being a street artist because in many ways it remains not accepted as an expression or profession.

"This is despite [the fact] people involved are the ones who went on to influence mainstream culture."

It Ain't Where You From explores that universal dilemma from a regional angle.

In addition to the general quest for acceptance, Arab street artists also navigate a pressure cooker environment informed by the trauma of conflict, economic challenges and familial expectation.

“These are elements that are unique to this part of the world that artists from Europe and other parts of the world didn’t experience,” Rachid says.

“The expectations of family and society is a heavy burden for many of the artists here.”

Talents and expectations

It all makes for compelling and, in some cases, poignant viewing.

"I am living in a country where my simple rights are taken away from me," says Lana Ramadan while dancing in an empty graffiti-stained pool in Beirut.

"I feel like I am surviving and not winning."

Ramadan goes on to state how the urgency of her choreography mirrors some of the anxieties coursing through Lebanese society.

Fellow breakdancer Feras Habesh also shares this internal tension.

The film's audience is taken to his family home in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, as he explains how his talent was a family secret, kept from his father, formerly the imam of the local mosque.

Upon finding out, Habesh’s dad asked him to demonstrate the art form.

“So I showed him and his answer was silence,” he recalled. “I felt [like] I did something wrong, I didn’t want to ruin my father's reputation.”

However, not every encounter in It Ain't Where You From is fraught.

Bahraini rapper and producer Abdulla Alhayaki explains how music gave him a sense of identity.

"It's a relationship I can't explain to someone next to me," he says from his home studio. "It's something that's within. I felt like I found myself."

For Rachid, some of these exchanges hit close to home.

Born to Iraqi-Kurdish parents and raised in Holland, he first saw performance art’s capacity to inspire aged 6.

“I was the tambourine kid in a traditional folk band and we would play in all these Kurdish weddings across the country,” he recalls.

"I remember seeing all those people dancing the dabka for six hours straight with happiness on their faces. That left a real impression on me.

“Then, as I grew up and lost some of that identity, I wanted to recapture that moment I felt when I was younger and I found that through music.”

Breaking the ceiling

While It Ain't Where You From is a snapshot of the emerging scene, Rachid is keen for the documentary to trigger further discussions within the community.

"The street art scene in Europe only evolved through people making their mark and being proactive,” he says.

“It's not just about biding your time because there is still a glass ceiling that needs to be broken.”

And the way to do that, he says, is to study and share knowledge with similar communities around the world.

Not only will Arab talents find kindred spirits, but also the inspiration to break free from complacency.

“It happens, in that sometimes you get too comfortable in being the best in your 'hood,” Rachid says.

"I remember when I travelled to New York and I saw so many amazing dancers on the street corners that I realised I had a lot to learn. A humbling experience is necessary."

That said, there is no denying It Ain't Where You From is a proud and inspirational account of Arab talents finding their voice against the odds.

It could also be one of the first works to document the regional street art community.

“Man, if that is the case then it is a special feeling,” says Rachid.

“If people can refer to the film 20 and 30 years from now, then I think we all did a great job.”

Shubbak Festival runs until Saturday, July 17. For more information and the full programme visit shubbak.co.uk

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