Is There A Way For Independence In The Art Not To Be Classist? A reading of the movie Microphone

by M. A.

Last week I was one of a privileged few to preview Microphone, Ahmad Abdalla’s second long feature which he also wrote, a Film Clinic and Khaled Abul Naga production.   The film and its crew screened at Toronto International Film Festival, and then Vancouver’s  and London’s.  I realize that any reviewing to Abdalla’s work by me would automatically suffer a staggering drop of credibility due to our kinship.  I shall attempt to partially regain this credibility by stating the fact that, contrary to its predecessor Heliopolis which I read its award winning screenplay before shooting began, I in fact had very little contact with the film neither as a screenplay nor during its shooting which took place entirely in Alexandria.

Microphone follows (I will use this verb as it accurately describes the DOP Tarek Hefny’s documentary style) Khaled’s (Khaled Abul Naga) return to Alexandria from the United States.   Through his work with an NGO active in the local cultural scene (the filmmaker gives it the name Gudran, an actual Alexandrian NGO in a real-life naming direction that endures throughout the film) running  a public space that serves as a meeting point for local creative youth, Khaled encounters a series of young  people striving to find their own voices in the form of ‘independent’ music groups (the film makes very little effort in explaining what this independence entails, other that a form of withdrawal from social and artistic norms.)  Khaled decides, in a development chivalry that is not entirely pity-free, to help this youth get its place under the sun and immediately is confronted by institutional suppression before he faces the depressive reality that the streets no longer belong to them.

Abdalla astonishes us all with a compelling ability to control his elements in his second film, all the while creating an exceptionally personal picture.  The two documentary filmmakers’ characters in the film utter many of the questions and dilemmas facing an artist like Ahmad Abdalla.  The visual language of Microphone is a mature extension of Heliopolis’s.  I always say that the first half hour in Abdalla’s films are the toughest; elements are mobilized to drag the spectator outside of her cinematic-experience comfort zone.  The overflow of information in those first few minutes exceeds that we find in most films, and it is not in the smoothest sequences either.  Ahmad’s concern seems to be neither informative nor to establish a launching point, it is the contrary.  The intention is to make us forget what we expect and what we are used to, and to go down a rabbit hale that only he knows his way through.

There is but one element in common between the films numerous ‘independent’ characters: They are all in search of a voice to express themselves in; a voice that is not conventional.  And they are doing so by trying to reclaim the street.  This is equally true whether the voice is artistic like in the case of hip hopers, bands, graffiti artists, and filmmakers, or an attitude like in the case of skateboarders, although the film reduces the worldwide culture into merely an unusual means of transportation.  Naturally the film fell into the expected class paradox: none of these characters succeeded in earning my sympathy.  I simply couldn’t bring myself to victimizing them and their search for claiming a street, perfectly occupied by others, as they all obviously belong to a social class with certain privileges that allows them to have the economic luxury of spending their days rapping and making documentary films.   This outlook seems intentional with Yassin, the young skateboarder, who’s always seen in a pressed, spotless white shirt, contrasted only by his neatly-cut black hair, and in Yusra and Magdi, who seem to be casted specifically with model qualities.  This leaves the tapes stall man, who shares a symbiotic relationship with a parliament candidate banner (his voice/ vote?) who comes as a crude attempt to give room for a proletarian character also in search for his voice.

Independence is an economic term.  It is the production of a creative product outside the controlled world of large production corporations.  In music it is so clear and simple that any albums produced by any label other than the major five is considered independent.    It goes without saying  that functioning outside the mainstream production system grants artists a certain amount of freedom which is leveraged to serve the term, turning independence into an ‘attitude’ or a ‘way of creating’ regardless of the economics of it.  Young and emerging artists, and even some platinum record artists like Prince, have always made use of the concept to carve their careers through the jungle of commercial viability.

In Microphone, however, the concept is reduced to some type of a class privilege: it is a way to distinguish one’s self from the economy of the masses and occasionally their culture.  It is perplexing how all the voices given to lower class individuals in the film are either deformed (the tape stall guy hardly says a word most of the film, and when he does he uses lyrics from his tapes), caricatured (as in El Excellence, the sleazy talkative broker who’s told explicitly to be quite by khaled, and laughed at by Aya), or carrying an oppressive loud voice (the Islamists interrupting the sound check.)  It is somewhat troubling that in the film those who own the street are the police, slimy entrepreneurial brokers, and Islamists.  The film completely fails to address that those villainized Islamists (we see them in close-ups shouting and yelling to stop the street concert from taking place- and then backed up by police action) are in fact lower-middle class reclaiming their own space from the capitalist-authority union.

At this point, the filmmakers courageously spare no efforts in creating an almost emotion-free picture.  Putting many of the characters directly in front of the lens and awkwardly address the camera about their motives and feelings, makes us understand them better, but only on the expense of empathy.  The film also adopts an unusual structure when placing one of the few dramatized story lines (Khaled’s meeting with his ex-lover who informs him with her decision to leave Egypt) as a backdrop of the film, allowing the cityscape to fill the foreground void.  This bore three significant effects on the film: the first was its length, as the film editor Hisham Saqr struggled to create a movie that was less than two hours long, the second was this moderately-tempered documentary feel that the film has and makes us deal with events and characters in an almost cruel neutrality, and lastly it made any story line with the bare minimum amount of emotional charge be dubbed foreign to the film’s spirit.  This is evident in Magdy/ Yusra’s love story, and the father’s relationship development with Shahin.   As it appears to be, there will always be an element of fear to entirely abandon the norm when creating a work for the public.

The screenplay was created from a mishmash of real stories collected by Abdalla.  He then wove them together in a single thread and fed it back to its owners who also acted as their real selves in the film.  This remains in my opinion the film’s most contemporary accomplishments as it bares similarity to a global tendency into using notions like creative commons when dealing with a creative product.  It certainly never claimed to be an authorless creation, but finds various ways to acknowledge the original sources of the stories.  Despite this bold democratized creative process, Ahmad’s wearing of the two hats of the director and the ‘collector’ ended up compromising the film’s vision into a monotonous one.  As a friend commented, the film lacked a devil’s advocate to reach a certain level of narrative complexity.

It would be unfair to talk about Microphone without paying tribute to the film’s brilliant image, created by Tarek Hefny with a Cannon digital camera designed primarily for still photography (Hefny is a skilled, established photographer) , and tested for the first time in Egypt in making movies.  The camera’s small size and unassuming shape came in handy when shooting documentary footage of the city (and the astonishing skating shots.)  Hefny’s knowledge of photography lighting was his best asset in delivering such a sharp and clean picture.  The party scene at Sameh’s flat remains his best moments.

Microphone is leap in an emerging and visionary filmmaker’s career, and a step in establishing an alternative and contemporary Egyptian film industry.  Hopefully this industry will one day find a way out of the paradox and turn its class-based independence into an economic and artistic one.

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One Comment to “Is There A Way For Independence In The Art Not To Be Classist? A reading of the movie Microphone”

  1. i find the analytical approah to the movie is quiet impressive, good objective critic Abdallah
    i loved the movie, coming from Alex, working in the independent arts scene, knowing personally many persons represented in it, i can’t say that i wasnt positively overwhelmed by everything in it
    although i just i have one comment to add, from the point of view of an insider, not outsider like the filmmaker (who tended to romanticize the picture around these young people a bit), these ‘underground’ bands are not necessary marginalized , for instance, masar egbary is having almost a month concert in the BA which is a big institution!
    and the filmmaker represented them, and others like very talented people who have no voice, although this is not really necessary true, it’s a problem also of lack of creativity and talent too, arent they and others represent a different copy from old bands like el 7ob wi el salam for example. are they really presenting a unique , different arts and music? can these bands really compete on the national and regional level, or are they sometimes locked in this area where they dont wish to go further, develop themselves and their arts?, may be they are underground because they are not strong enough to be otherwise
    and this could open the discussion about what is ‘pop” and what is ‘underground”, is it all about “public accessibility” and ‘get sponsored’ or something else.
    but also i can’t generalize here, this is can be subject for discussion as i said
    thanks ya Mohamed for the insightful, objective well founded critic

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