Cosmos of Subcultures

Many film-makers in Egypt are tired of commercialism and escapism and are eager to focus on the reality of life in their country. Given that European-style subsidies are not available to them, some are willing to work on shoestring budgets to do so. Ahmad Abdalla is one such a director. Irit Neidhardt went to see his new film Microphone

Many film-makers in Egypt are tired of commercialism and escapism and are eager to focus on the reality of life in their country. Given that European-style subsidies are not available to them, some are willing to work on shoestring budgets to do so. Ahmad Abdalla is one such a director. Irit Neidhardt went to see his new film Microphone

​​The poster for Ahmad Abdalla's new film Microphone (Egypt 2010) shows a microphone rising up out of a green lawn, its sturdy roots burrowing deep into the earth that dominates the poster. The microphone stands out against the blue sky, beckoning passers-by to say a few words. They would have to bend down to do so, squeezing themselves into the small frame of sky in the poster.

Having already been screened and showered with acclaim at numerous international festivals, there was great anticipation surrounding the film's Egyptian premiere at the Cairo International Film Festival in December 2010.

It won the grand prize at the festival in Tunis and was named Best Arabic Film in Cairo – international festival regulations rendering the film ineligible for a higher honour.

A new dynamic

The film is one of a series of recent Egyptian productions that are putting the country back on the international film-making map while simultaneously documenting a new dynamic there.

Microphone tells the story of Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga), who returns to his hometown of Alexandria after spending several years abroad. He soon realises that he can't simply resume his old life in the city.

He would like to win back his ex-girlfriend Hadeer (Menna Shalabi in a cameo role), but she's about to leave the country, and his relationship with his father (another cameo, by Mahmoud El Lozy) is beyond repair.

And so Khaled ends up wandering through the streets of the city, gradually discovering a vibrant subculture. He decides to use his old contacts and limited means to help the young artists get gigs and find places to practise.

Along the way he meets Selma (Yousra El Lozy) and Magdy (Ahmed Magdy), two students who are just shooting their final film-school project about Alexandria's underground scene. In a cameo role, Egyptian film director Yousry Nasrallah (El-Medina / The City) plays himself as a lecturer teaching the ethics of documentary film-making.

From the perspective of the artists

Microphone was originally supposed to be a documentary film, inspired by a summer holiday in Alexandria when Ahmad Abdalla noticed the proliferation of graffiti in public spaces. He was particularly intrigued by the sprayed works of an 18-year-old woman artist, whose acquaintance he was then able to make through friends, and who in turn introduced him to bands, skateboarders and various other people active in the city's alternative scene.

​​Abdalla finds himself discovering a whole cosmos he never knew existed and which he decides to document. After discussing the idea with the potential protagonists, he ultimately decides to fictionalise the material instead.

"I wanted to make a fiction film consisting of a journey through the streets and alleyways and over the rooftops of the city, in which Khaled – the main character – takes viewers by the hand and leads them through the various stations and to the people, subcultures and artistic activities that all exist in the city but are often invisible to us. The journey is based on the real-life stories of the artists, and it is told from their point of view."

Alexandria's subcultures

All of the figures in the subculture play themselves and developed their roles in collaboration with Abdalla. Even though only a relatively limited number of those in the underground scene feature in the film – among them the hip-hop band Y-Crew, the female heavy metal combo Mascara, the sprayer duo Aya & Ragab and skateboarder Yaseen – the film's presentation of the "underground" makes the last third of the film a bit long-winded.

And yet Microphone still has a magical appeal: Khaled Abol Naga, who plays the fictional character Khaled, is a movie star in Egypt, whose fame is based on the commercial films that dominate cinemas.

Just like Yousra El Lozy and Menna Shalabi, he embodies popular dreams. But the dream into which he lures his audience in Microphone is in fact reality: an ad-hoc concert on the street, a mobile sound studio in a Volkswagen Beetle parked on the beach, young people who glide through the streets and squares of the city on their skateboards, or who courageously and wittily help to brighten up concrete walls.

"I decided to make an independent low-budget film with a crew of no more than eight people. I chose a camera that had never been used for such a film before, a photo camera able to shoot videos. This gave us the advantage of being able to shoot on the street without anyone noticing what we were doing, letting us capture daily life in the city and in places where it wouldn't have been possible with more sophisticated equipment," Abdalla recounts.

"A microphone for everyone!"

​​Not only this procedure, which wasn't dictated by financial considerations, as the director remarked in a BBC interview, but also the film's cast have the character of a demonstration: many film-makers are tired of commercialism and escapism and are eager to come to terms with the realities of life in their country, to expose the inertia and frustration that has been festering for years in the disintegrating middle class.

Increasing numbers of films are being produced that do not recoup their production costs at the box office and for which, unlike in Europe, no state subsidies are available.

Many film-makers outside the public eye are also producing independently. The former wartime photographer Ibrahim El Batout fought long and hard to get theatrical release for his film Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun, 2008), proving that even in a city that only has commercial cinemas, there is an audience for more experimental works.

In an audience discussion about Microphone, producer Mohamed Hefzy referred to these colleagues and "their important work", declaring that he was seriously interested in a discourse on the spectrum of new cinematic possibilities.

The film team's slogan – "A microphone for everyone!" – was refreshingly plausible, earning enthusiastic applause from an audience still reeling from the massive fraud in Egypt's most recent parliamentary elections.

Irit Neidhardt

© 2011

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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