It's common to hear laments regarding the decline of Egyptian cinema and music. Both fields reached iconic heights in the 1950s and 1960s, but today, or so the story goes, they are mired in the derivative and the commercial.
Yet those interested in seeing a successful example of Egypt's growing independent film industry, as well as a galvanising portrait of its homegrown musical scene, should consider Microphone. The second feature film by Ahmad Abdalla, a young Egyptian director, it recently won the Carthage Film Festival's best film award and will be screened at the Dubai and Cairo film festivals next month.
Abdalla's previous film, Heliopolis, was well received at last year's Cairo festival. Lightly plotted and deliberately paced, it portrayed a day in the life of a series of characters from the eponymous Cairo neighbourhood. The stories, an engaged couple hunting for the perfect fridge; a Coptic man thinking of emigrating; a hotel clerk who has deceived her family into thinking she works abroad; a graduate student doing research on the neighbourhood's history, intertwined but, deliberately, never crested.
"I wanted to make a movie where nothing happened," Abdalla told me at the time, a film about Egypt's political and social stasis. The central theme of Heliopolis is best illustrated by the character of the poor army conscript who stands silently on guard on a street corner and whose endless hours of arbitrary service are punctuated by such trivial challenges as finding a light for his cigarette or a piece of bread to feed a stray puppy.
At first glance, his new work appears to be an entirely different type of film. Microphone, about the underground youth scene in Alexandria, has a wonderfully kinetic opening, a celebratory explosion of colour, motion and music. Nothing could seem further from all the dithering and daydreaming in Abdalla's previous work.
Microphone started out as a documentary about Aya, an 18-year-old female graffiti artist in Alexandria, whose work had come to Abdalla's attention.
Through Aya, he discovered the city's lively collection of bands, in particular its burgeoning hip-hop scene, and decided to make a documentary about youth culture in Egypt's second city, featuring musicians, filmmakers, artists and skateboarders. Because documentary films are rarely shown in Egyptian theatres, Abdalla gave a fictional framework to his footage of musicians and kids hanging out.
Thus, the character of Khaled, played by the well-loved actor Khaled Abol-Naga, who is also a producer of the film, returns to Alexandria after a seven-year absence, only to find that the woman he has been longing to see again is about to leave town.
While he mopes over his bad timing, Abol-Naga comes into contact with the film's young characters, who are busy rehearsing, falling in and out of love, hanging out and trying to land gigs.
Microphone is best appreciated as a documentary about music and youth culture in contemporary Egypt, bolstered by a slim fictional frame. In fact, Abdalla says, "we kept trying to be true to the first idea: to give artists the microphone to speak their minds." The artists and kids play themselves, and their storylines are often inspired by their own lives.
Indeed, these stories provide the framework for one of the film's stronger sequence in which the bands audition for a spot in a government-backed concert. The smarmy official who presides over this process manages to censor each group, while denying he is doing so: "I'm an artist myself, you know… to prove to you that we are a democratic institution, we'll include one song, but you have to change the lyrics, please," he says, before finally turning them all down in favour of a bland choice - a singer who covers Umm Kulthum songs.
Abdalla has a casual, organic approach to scriptwriting and directing. He let the amateur actors change the script until they were comfortable with it, because he believes "it wouldn't be fair to make them say lines that don't sound true to them". This makes for some charming performances and pleasingly naturalistic (if not always memorable) dialogue and is one of several similarities between this and Abdalla's earlier work.
Another is its self-referential touch. In Heliopolis, the main character carries a camera to document his research; in Microphone, two film students work on a film within the film. This allows Abdalla to use documentary footage and for the director Yousry Nasrallah to appear in a cameo role, wondering whether a filmmaker should be "a spy, a friend or a lover" to his characters.
A further characteristic of Abdalla's work is his referencing of politics through small rather than large allegories. As the director says, "if you want to write a story about your daily life you cannot avoid what is going on in your city politically. It appears on every corner." In Microphone that corner is occupied by a cassette seller who sets up his stall next to a large political campaign poster. He tapes his own advertisements to the poster and huddles under it in the rain. In other words he approaches political power as most Egyptians do - out of expedience and a need for protection.
At one point he accidentally burns the would-be parliamentarian's eyes and remedies his mistake by cutting out a pair of trendy sunglasses from one of the music posters he sells. Later, this street vendor is attacked, in a scene which clearly references the crime that shook Alexandria last year, namely the beating to death by police of a young man named Khaled Said.
The film, the first feature-length movie to be shot entirely on Canon 7D cameras, has a bright digital palette and lots of brio: a sped-up sequence of Friday street prayers, in which the men on the pavement look like synchronised dancers, is particularly delightful. The soundtrack is also excellent, including an all-girl metal group called Maskara, a hip-hop group that rants against the "process of donkey-fication" and the band Massar Egbari ("One Way"), who perform a wonderfully jazzy number about limited job opportunities and forced migration. Nonetheless, the film starts to run out of breath in its final third.
By then the movie's underlying metaphor - the great difficulty of finding one's voice in contemporary Egypt - is more than clear, and the meandering subplots add little to it. Still, Microphone keeps alive its fundamental question: when and how will all these young people find the audience their music deserves?
Abdalla says that while Heliopolis was about Egypt's difficulties dealing with its past, Microphone addresses the country's uncertain future. The final sequence, in which an informal street concert that seemed the film's likely happy ending is stymied, is all too representative of the status quo. In the end, Abdalla has made another movie in which his characters, despite their vitality and their talent, go nowhere. But he hints at the possibility that this might change one day.
Ursula Lindsey, a regular contributor to The Review, lives in Cairo.