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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Film-makers club a revolutionary idea

The Egyptian screen legend Khaled Abol Naga on Egyptian cinema, the Arab Spring and why we shouldn't spent too much time chasing Middle Eastern Oscar winners.


The Egyptian actor, director and producer Khaled Abol Naga in a scene from Microphone. Courtesy Film-Clinic
The Egyptian actor, director and producer Khaled Abol Naga in a scene from Microphone. Courtesy Film-Clinic

Khaled Abol Naga needs little introduction to fans of Arab cinema and television. As an actor, director and producer, the Egyptian star has more than 20 films to his name, as well as work as a stand-up comic, stage actor and even the presenter of TV’s Good Morning Egypt.

The 2010 film Microphone, which he produced and starred in, caught the zeitgeist of the Arab Spring like no other movie; the film’s portrayal of Alexandrian youth struggling to find their voice in the face of an uncaring system has been oft-cited as a major inspiration for Egypt’s youth during the nascent revolution.

On a recent visit to Dubai, where Canon was hosting a screening of the film to celebrate Naga’s appointment as its brand ambassador, Naga was at pains to place the influence of his film in perspective – and noted that when the fateful events in Tahrir Square were taking place, few in Egypt had even seen the film.

“The film’s Egyptian theatre release took place on January 25, 2011 – the day the revolution started,” he explains. “Ironically, that meant that nobody saw the film in Egypt as everyone was on the streets, not in the cinema, myself included, so its theatrical release came to pretty much nothing. No one saw it until it came on TV a year later. We thought we’d lose all our money, but luckily we won a lot of awards and had major festival success, so it got picked up by a lot of networks.”

Naga adds: “A lot of people who saw the film thought I must have somehow known the revolution was coming, but in reality the film just reflected the mood on the streets where it’s set.”

Behind the scenes

The film came about when its director, Ahmad Abdullah, spotted some unusual graffiti in Alexandria and decided he wanted to track down the artist and make a documentary. As he dug deeper into Alexandria’s youth subculture, he found a simmering pot of creativity struggling to make itself heard, and the documentary became the feature-length docudrama Microphone.

The film drops Naga’s lead character in among the bands, skaters and graffiti artists. While the protagonist is fictional, the supporting cast is real, and the narrative is that of their daily real-life struggle.

While Naga is modest regarding the film’s influence on the events of Tahrir Square, he is convinced that the Egyptian revolution has had a huge influence on Egypt’s cinema industry.

“Most of the big productions got their funding from the Gulf,” he says. “I think producers had become lazy. They could have got the money in Egypt, but it was harder. More negotiation was needed. When the revolution kicked off, those foreign investors were scared off, and the only money in the Egyptian industry was Egyptian money, which only the independents had been using, so you had a situation where only the independents were making films.

“I was at a festival in Cairo recently, and I realised all six films winning the top awards were independent productions, including my own latest film Villa 69. It goes to show that you can’t rely solely on outside funding to maintain a successful industry, and I hope our industry learns from that.”

Film club

The Egyptian film industry is clearly something Naga is passionate about, and in a bid to increase his own contribution he has created I-Team-Cairo, which he describes as a club for independent filmmakers to share skills and resources and keep budgets down.

As part of the brand ambassador deal with Canon, the Japanese giant will also be supporting I-Team-Cairo by supplying equipment and training, and one Unicef musical clip has already been produced after Naga sent some of the camera equipment Canon had supplied to be tested by I-Team members.

The first feature to come from the scheme, meanwhile, is The BuSSy Monologues, a film version of a student play dealing with some controversial women’s issues in contemporary Egypt.

Change of perspective

Naga is also keen to impress on Arab filmmakers that they should seek success on their own terms rather than constantly chasing the approval of Hollywood.

When I mention the Arab world’s strong showing, and ultimate disappointment at this month’s Oscars, he is almost dismissive: “I don’t really follow the Oscars. They’re overrated. I’d prefer to win awards at Cannes, Berlin, Toronto or Venice. These are real international film festivals. I would never win a Best Actor Oscar, and there’s only one foreign film award for the whole of the world outside Hollywood.

“People should pay more attention to real international festivals with real international films, not some big glitzy showbiz event with a token foreign film award. The Oscars were set up by the US industry to celebrate the US industry, and that’s great for them, but it’s not something I spend much time thinking about.”

He may have a point. Given that this year’s awards “to celebrate the US industry” were dominated by the British films 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, perhaps it’s time we all started looking beyond the usual Hollywood suspects for our next movie fix.

cnewbould@thenational.ae