When I first met Ahmed Abdullah, he was showcasing his directorial debut “Heliopolis” at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival two years ago. Already back then his film expressed a certain realism, authenticity and sincerity that you can’t help but feel genuinely connected to this total stranger. This talented young man who skillfully narrates stories from life, without pretentiousness and always on eye level with his protagonists, has created another milestone in independent cinema in Egypt: Microphone.
With Microphone he has created a masterpiece of contemporary cinema. What began as a documentary on underground art in Alexandria ended up with a film on the trials and tribulations of young Egyptians deprived of freedom of expression and bursting with talent. A generation of teens and twenty something’s on the quest for their place and identity facing pressure by their conforming parents and harsh oppression by the corrupt political regime that crushes their constant trials of expressing themselves.
Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga) returns to his home town after a few years of absence only to come back to a changed Egypt. His get together with his former girl friend Hadeer (Menna Shalaby), a long conversation, is smoothly woven into the different incidents of the plot. His curiosity to reconnect to the Egypt he once left stumbles across despair and frustration of Hadeer, who decided to part with Egypt. They meet at a crossroad in their lives, both changed and affected by the past five or so years spent in different socio-political circumstances. This very cross-road symbolizes the horrendous state Egypt had reached.
On his quest and urge to reconnect Khaled roams Alexandria and discovers a whole new world of young street artists, musicians and documentary filmmakers, who follow their creative passion underground. A young generation that does not want to conform to the corrupted arts imposed by the orchestrated culture program offered by the old regime. A generation that created alternative forms of expression in an environment that was a stone throw away from exploding. He gathers his efforts in an attempt to help these young talents by trying to give them a platform for expression yet comes to an abrupt halt at the hand of the police controlled state and its apparatus.
Watching Microphone after the revolution gives a whole different meaning and taste to it. The real footage used of the Khaled Said protests in Alexandria gets a whole different dynamic. The fact that it was released in Egypt on Jan 25th could not be more poetic.
I met up with Ahmed Abdallah during a screening of Microphone at Diwan Bookstore for a long overdue interview. Abdallah is a young, sincere and authentic filmmaker, which is more than obvious in his films. His love for details and ability to capture moments as they unfold will surely take him places.
How come you chose to portray young artists, because you feel their struggle or for your musical background?
It was never supposed to be a film about music, but about freedom of expression. One day I was walking around in Alexandria and saw this Graffiti which caught my attention. I began asking around until I found Aya, through whom I learned about this female metal band. There they were, Mascara, young girls who would meet three times a week to rehearse their music and actually have their own songs, you don’t find that often in Egypt. So I felt that these people do this for their own pleasure, for themselves, not for a certain career. A graffiti artist doesn’t even sign his/her work and doesn’t get paid, so I felt that these artists are genuinely doing this for the own sake and passion. It is similar to independent film making, like the young couple who were trying to shoot a film. Microphone is about freedom of expression about the voices of these young people who are not heard.
Most of your actors are fresh faces ‘acting virgins’ is that a coincidence?
Any artist who respects his/her profession is always on the lookout for a medium to try something new and to escape the known or the commonly tried. Unfortunately, the field wasn’t very flexible in this aspect and many might have been alluded to the notion that the audience would not get this and that. I enjoy working with people I like and am comfortable with.
The dialogue is very real and authentic, were there any improvisations?
Yes, a whole scene, which I personally like a lot, in which Yosra looks on the ground in a very spontaneous manner after being asked by Khaled how long they (couple) have been knowing each other.
You usually have very detailed round characters in your plot, does that require your script to be reworked when you write it, to constantly add new features?
Well, it is written and compiled once actually. I don’t really work on it several times or rewrite it. I look at it in a broader aspect. I feel if I keep on repeating or stressing on certain parts it would feel ‘worked’ rather than genuine. I speak with the cast and see what they would suggest or like to add to the character. Atef, the cassette vendor, is from Alexandria, he would sit in the alleys and came back with a strange pair of sneakers, when I asked what that would be, he responded that all guys here wear them. Yosra wore her own clothes and so one. Most details stem from team work.
When did you decide to become a director?
Actually I never did. I decided to try to shoot a film and then another one, but I never said ‘I want to be a director’. If I get a good film to do the montage for I would totally accept, which I did with Ibrahim El Batout’s documentary, for example. I will be involved in the montage of Tamer Said’s ‘last days in the city’ as well. Unfortunately, many think that directing is the step after montage. I think one needs to know the rules of the profession and then you can play different roles. It is one language. Heliopolis was a 25 page script based on real events that occurred to people that I sincerely wanted to talk about or to. As for Microphone I was affected by the immense struggles of these young people to express themselves and wanted to film that.
What do you think will happen with Egyptian cinema now?
I think it is too soon to tell. No one knows what will happen but cinema doesn’t stop. I think content wise people started to reflect more, even politically everything changed, and people want to try new things. I think that the field will become more flexible in trying young talent. In Heliopolis my DOP Mahmoud Lotfy was 22 years old and Tarek Hefny, the DOP in ‘Microphone’, never shot a film before.
How can young talents find a platform?
Well I don’t know how to bridge that gap but I think that cultural institutions need to do that. I am now one of six chosen persons to participate in the restructuring of the National Cinema Center. We will draw the broad policies and outlines and try to re-launch the cultural centers that are either closed or misused. A lot can be done but the most important role would come from a government institution to foster talent and culture along with the civil society that has to claim its role as well. Anyone can shoot a film, there are talents who shoot a film with an iPhone, we must think out of the box. You don’t have to be part of the guild or have studied at the Higher Institute for Cinema to become a filmmaker.
How do you feel when a film like “Al Musafer” gets huge government funding while young talents struggle to finance a short film?
What you say is justified and I understand where you come from yet this debate is rather controversial. Worldwide there are huge production budgets which doesn’t mean that at the same time there can’t be a maybe more just distribution of funds to cover all applicants.
Do u know what women want?
Do you honestly believe someone knows an answer to that. By the way I am a feminist so this question indicates that women are a different species, I couldn’t tell you as well what men want, what you wants is different than what she wants for example…