By Sarah El Sirgany
Three men spell out a curse word in Arabic. The three letters rhyme with the rest of their sharp and furious rap. But these seem to be the exact reasons why they are ruled out by a government employee from participating in a public concert.
Saleh (Mohamed Saleh), who heads a government art center, doesn’t stop at the three men, hip hop band Y-Crew Family. He intervenes and offers advice to other auditioning musicians on how to make their art “acceptable.” His character and suggestions serve as not-so-subtle references to the hierarchy of systematic censorship that pressures creativity to conform under the guise of farcical slogans. “We have freedom of expression in this country,” Saleh says repeatedly.
“Microphone” is rife with such references, questions and indirect — but hard to miss — statements. They are intertwined with the plot of the film and its subjects to the point that the film itself is made to appear as a statement.
Like the musicians it follows, the film is rebellious. It rebels against the conventional format, but confidently questions itself every step of the way.
In one of the first scenes, a flustered, smoke-puffing Yousra El-Lozy talks to a camera held by a colleague of hers. A voice asks, “Do you know the difference between a documentary and a feature film?”
She immediately dismisses the seemingly-academic question, but it lingers throughout the film. “Microphone,” which won the Gold Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis and the Arab competition of the Cairo International Film Festival, can’t be simply classified as a feature.
It’s a documentary meets feature meets musical.
For the large part, it is a film inside a film: two students, Salma (El-Lozy) and Magdy (Ahmed Magdy), are making a documentary about the underground music scene in Alexandria. “Microphone” adds faint dramatic threads to that documentary, including one about the relationship between Salma and Magdy. The musicians play themselves in the film, acting out — or reenacting — their real life stories that they have contributed to the script.
According to the film star and co-producer Khaled Abol Naga, it was professional actors like himself who had to step up to the realism of the musicians, not the contrary as initially expected. “You learn the role, not the dialogue,” Abol Naga said, referring to his experience in the film as more educational than others with professional actors.
Out of about 45 characters in “Microphone,” less than 10 were professional actors playing fictional roles, according to director and scriptwriter Ahmad Abdalla.
This could be the result or the cause of blurring the lines between fiction and reality; each borrows from and makes references to the other throughout the film. Hany Adel, the lead singer of Wust El-Balad, the band that has become the face of the Cairo underground music scene over the past decade, appears as an actor playing a strictly fictional character, without any musical contributions.
The story of Atef Youssef’s character, a cassette tapes street vendor of the same name, was altered when the case of Khaled Saeid, who eyewitnesses saw beaten to death by two policemen, made the news. The cast and crew participated in one of the demonstrations against police torture in Alexandria and included footage of it in the film, in addition to making plot references to Saeid.
Seasoned director Yousry Nasrallah’s role, as an unnamed film instructor guiding Salma and Magdy’s project, is another example of blurred fiction-reality lines, and it further fuels the contention in the film’s identity, a documentary or a feature. The role could be fictional, or part of a documentary about filmmaking in which Nasrallah spills out his well-earned wisdom. His latest “Tell Me a Story, Scheherazade,” which meshed real life stories with fiction, is also referenced in “Microphone.”
Nasrallah questions the conventional film formats throughout the film, guiding his students through the path of breaking rules. In a class discussion about the validity of having the filmmaker and the camera as characters in a film, Nasrallah suggests that the filmmaker’s relation to the subject in this case should be either love or hate.
As it immediately transpires in the very first scenes, “Microphone’s” director Abdalla, who made a brief cameo, chose love.
“Microphone” is a heartwarming ode to Alexandria’s underground music scene. In the two-hour film, music is at the center: it’s the stage, the protagonist, the plot and the driving force. Like sidekicks, drama, narrative and other characters are only there to serve the real hero: the music.
Abdalla’s debut film “Heliopolis” was a tribute to Cairo’s eastern district of the same name. The place was the main protagonist, the imposing background to characters helplessly submitting to a frustrating reality with subtle acts of rebellion. In “Microphone,” the place, this time Alexandria, remains a main character but it takes a backseat leaving music to take over. As Abdalla put it in a response to a question about his choice of Alexandria’s back streets rather than its beautiful coast, “The beauty of the place isn’t important; the beauty of people’s souls is.”
Like the music it pays tribute to, the film is an amalgamation of emotions. It’s furious, it’s frustrated, it’s endearing, and it’s nostalgic. Even its rebellion seems to be derived from the music and the graffiti art on Alexandria’s walls.
Frustrated with their exclusion from the concert, Y-Crew Family take their performance to the street, attracting a supportive crowd along with unwanted police attention. But as it transpires, it’s not just the authorities that stifle unmonitored creativity; society whether in the name of tradition or religious conservatism rejects and suppresses these artists.
Khaled (Abol Naga), who returns to his hometown after years in the US, works with Hany (Hany Adel) in an art center and together they try to organize another concert for independent acts, with the help of teenage skateboarder Yassin Koptan and graffiti artists Aya Tarek and Ahmed Ragab. In their journey, a wonderful world of art unravels. And according to the filmmakers, the musicians featured are just the tip of Alexandria’s musical iceberg.
Mascara, which until recently was an all-girl band, plays metal with a violinist on board. In the film, following Saleh’s demands to ditch English-language songs for the concert, the three women choose the Arabic, “Ab’ad Makan” (The Furthest Place). Their faces don’t appear due to what the film’s website described as their families’ concerns over participating in a movie.
The guitar and the oud come together in the songs of Soot fel Zahma, a unique blend of traditional music in modern format and piercing lyrics. This blend takes another twist with Massar Egbari’s “Mirsal le Habibty” (A Message to My Love), in which they mix rock music with an Egyptian mawwal by Aly Al-Halabawy.
It’s this music that gives the film its spirit, playing a hopeful note over the cacophony of the artists’ daily problems. At one point, a despairing Khaled arrives at Massar Egabri’s studio, where they give him the microphone to sing. As he gradually lets go and belts out the lyrics louder and louder, the microphone and the music prove cathartic.
The message is loud and clear, artists will keep fighting for their right to be heard.
“Microphone’s” filmmakers will too. Like the musicians, the film had its run with censorship over what Abdalla, Khaled and film producer Mohamed Hefzy reluctantly indicated were the same swear words that irked Saleh. They said that negotiations with censors were on the right track and they seemed resilient. “Like we fought to make this film, we’ll fight to release it [commercially] as it is,” Abdalla said.
Graffiti artists Aya Tarek and Ahmed Ragab. (Photo courtesy of Microphone’s website)
For the most part, “Microphone” appears as a film inside a film. (Photo courtesy of Microphone’s website)
Yousra El Lozy and Ahmed Magdy. (Photo courtesy of Microphone’s website)