To the soft hip-hop soundtrack of Nosair’s Welcome to Alexandria, graffiti artists spray, a music pirate evades the police, skateboarders skate, bands strum, and filmmakers set up shots.
This is how Ahmad Abdalla introduces his ensemble cast in the opening sequence of Microphone (2010). It pulls you into a striking parochial chauvinism toward Alexandria, a syndrome that any place with both “second-city” status and exciting culture might recognize. In Egypt, Alexandria is much cherished as a city where one inhales cultural heritage along with the sea air, and this filmic introduction to the city’s “underground” provides a refreshing update. But an international audience might be tempted to say: Sure sure, we all have graffiti artists and hip hop and bands. That’s just fine. What’s so special about Alexandria?
*NB: this review contains spoilers*
In fact, this is what Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga) is asking himself upon his return to the city after seven years abroad to a job in a media agency. Motivated by nostalgia and recent heartbreak, he discovers the independent music scene while scoping out a property deal for an event. Aya Tarek (Aya Tarek), a graffiti artist, is being forced to sell her studio. Through this encounter, he is slowly introduced to the city’s cultural underground. In fact — as he’s the type who prefers a quiet life — the city’s cultural underground finds him first, in the form of Salma (Yosra El Lozy) and Magdy (Ahmed Magdy) a pair of student filmmakers who, hostile to his property manoeuvres, decide to fix him in their lenses.
For me it’s better to see Microphone not as a portrayal of one extra special city, and instead to see it — on the level of pleasure — as a celebration of a certain model of creativity, and — on the political level — about conditions of artistic production. Many of the characters are real Alexandrians playing characters loosely based on themselves according to a very loose script. The film has long been followed by debate regarding whether it replicates Alexandria’s creative scene convincingly. But “Microphone,” as much as anything else, is also about the conditions of making Microphone. Its (low-budget, indie film) status clearly parallels the (low-budget, indie) culture it portrays. This surfaces at some of the film’s most poignant and self-aware moments, for example in the depiction of Mascara, an all-female thrash metal band, who when approached by Salma and Magdy do not want their faces shown in case their families see the footage.
Accordingly, Microphone obscures the characters’ faces in every shot.
The truth is, in method and in subject matter, Abdalla at this time seems to have been in love with a certain kind of authenticity. As with his previous film Heliopolis (2009) a central character (played also by Abol Naga) is spurred into searching for the hidden reality of a place, while contemporary dwellers of that place struggle to live their lives. Nostalgia is the unavoidable motivation. At the heart of Microphone is a deep admiration for creative people, and specifically those who build their niches — almost literally in the case of Aya, and in the case of the tape salesman (Atef Yousef) who shelters under a political campaign poster — in environments that are legally and culturally poised against them. Abdalla’s version of “authentic” pictures artists as aliens within broader social structures, their work untainted by compromise. In the construct of the film, they are pitched against impenetrable and censorious government agencies (lent considerable realism via the I’m-one-of-you-I-wish-I-could-help-you-guys performance of Mohamed Saleh, who plays the government cultural middleman).
In this sense, the film is inspiring. However, with this vision Abdalla ignores the presence and possibility of alternative institutional forces (which do exist in Alexandria, as they do the world over), whose structures attempt to act as a breakwater against culturally conservative forces, rather than as a barrier to creativity. While I’m not so worried about accuracy, it inevitably sets up a moralized and simplified message about independence being some kind of incontrovertible principle of artistic authenticity. What is “independence” to an artist? You show or perform in a place, whether it’s a street or a gallery, and ultimately you are dependent on that structure. What is at stake is not independence per se, but how complicit, interesting and supportive that structure can be. As a film that makes a strong commentary on conditions of cultural production, it largely misses out this crucial segment — and an opportunity to criticize that, too.
However, no one is denying how overwhelming the dominant authorities and cultures are that make it tough to practice contemporary culture, and on this level the film inspires and emotes enormously. The brief flare of romance between Salma and Magdy, Aya’s fight to keep her studio, and the efforts of several bands to impress the local, government-representative music impresario are three of the numerous balls that Abdalla keeps in the air (in the three-hour director’s cut, there are even more).
All of them are engaging. No single character takes center stage, and the impact of their struggles remains as an ensemble, one. Holding this together is a single conversation retrieved in flashback, between Khaled and the girlfriend Hadeer (Menna Shalabi) that he had left behind, upon re-meeting her in a café after seven years apart. The conversation is one of those painful, definition-of-the-relationship ones in which all barriers are down and all truths are incontrovertible, and she announces that she is leaving to live in London, where she can live an independent woman’s life and pursue her PhD. This sequence of scenes is replayed backwards, meaning that Khaled ends up where he started — yearning but alienated from a past love. Most striking of all is her assertion that as a woman and an intellectual, she can no longer live with the conservatism of the city; played deliberately against the diverse irrepressibility of the artists, filmmakers and musicians, at this stage you’d easily imagine that she is a foil of defeatism against which the other creatives can burn more brightly.
All good films are worth looking at in retrospect (this is partly what the “Egypt’s Cinematic Gems” series is about), but Microphone was extra interesting to rewatch in these sisyphean post-2011 days. When it first came out, Abdalla, to his immense credit, did not particularly encourage the chatter about how anticipatory of the 2011 revolution the film appeared to be — a byline that, by the time the film reached international distribution, headed nearly all the reviews and profiles. In a sense, he needn’t have been so modest — he may not be the revolutionary prophet all the reviewers wanted him to be, but zeitgeists are primarily cultural and whether he acknowledges it or not, it’s clear his antennae were twitching hard.
Most spooky of all is the other moment in which nonfictional life fully surfaces, which of course is the protest scene about the killing of Khaled Saeed. This sobers up the film beyond its internal dramas and also heralds the unravelling of everything Khaled is attempting to do with the young creatives. If the death of Saeed had been included so passingly in a later film, we would sense it as exploitative of revolutionary dramas, but in this case it simply hits you in the gut even harder. Microphone in particular, having been so celebrated for its prescience, also seems incredibly poignant in retrospect.
In retrospect also, it’s fun to compare Microphone to the 2012 Mobinil Ramadan advert by Abdalla and some of the same production team. A slicker version of the same ensemble aesthetic roves over diverse Egyptians singing the pretty song “Because we have to be together.” The advert expresses their sense of national unity rather than cultural isolation — a perfect example of how the “underground” hits the capitalist mainstream and has all its bite taken out of it. Anyway, it’s just an advert (and one of my totally guilty pleasures), and Abdalla has focused on far more questioning work, such as “Rags and Tatters” (2013), since.
As it turns out, Khaled’s girlfriend is proved right; all the cumulative attempts of the creatives to build something for themselves fail, eventually. The bands — each promised a slot on a government showcase — are told they lost out to a government favorite. The girl whose family didn’t know she plays in Mascara is discovered by her brother. The budding romance between Salma and Magdy dissolves, ending their collaboration. The tape seller is beaten up by soldiers. Tarek’s studio is sold to the property developers. And Khaled Saeed is dead. All this, just as poor old heartbroken Khaled was just about getting into the swing of things.
A story of creative hopelessness is as tiresome as a story of creative idealism, and Microphone opts instead to portray a more complicated reality: Yes, it’s hopeless, but you do it anyway. This is the resounding message of the film, and one that is consistent to the heart of Egyptian contemporary culture.
So when Khaled returns, disillusioned, to tell his new friends that their concert has been canceled, they barely look up from their instruments.
And then they hand him a microphone.