Microphone (Egypt, 2010) Director: Ahmad Abdalla. Screening at Pacific Cinémathèque on Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 8:15 p.m. as part of The New Wave in African Cinema series running Nov. 1-3, 5-7. For more information visit thecinematheque.ca/the-new-wave-in-african-cinema.
Ahmad Abdalla documents real situations in his works of fiction.
Like Jean-Luc Godard and Iran’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf the Egyptian filmmaker plays with the notion of a cinematic reality separate from but equal to other levels of perception. He brings the concept front and centre in Microphone and opens his film with a question, “What’s the difference between documentary and fiction films?” The response is another question: “Excuse me?”
Abdalla’s latest feature focuses on the underground music scene in Alexandria, Egypt, which has its own unique cultural flavour distinct from Cairo. Inspired by the DIY ethic of the artists the filmmaker documented musicians performing in their community and interspersed it with a constructed story about Khaled, a young man returning to Alexandria after spending seven years away from home.
The music in the film varies from band to band with all of them cut off to some extent from their Arabic and Western sources. Bands with names like Massa Egbari and A Voice in the Crowd create their own vernacular versions of hip-hop, rock, folk and other less familiar genres. One ensemble brilliantly marries ecstatic Arabic vocals with a postrock groove to create something like what Youssou N’Dour might sound like if he sang with P.J. Harvey’s band. No translation is needed.
Microphone was shot with a Canon EOS 7D, (originally intended as a still photography camera) in Full HD 1080p at 24 frames per second. Abdalla has used the camera on smaller projects before but this may be the first time the camera has ever been used anywhere to shoot an entire feature. The production used an eight-man crew and two cameras to document the action.
Filming was completed in the summer of 2010 just in time for Microphone to receive its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
While in town for the Vancouver International Film Festival in Sept. 2010 Abdalla spoke about his work with the North Shore News.
North Shore News: Your first feature, Heliopolis, was shot in Cairo but you go for something completely different with Microphone. Ahmad Abdalla: I was fascinated with the underground arts scene in Alexandria — people are making music on the streets and on the rooftops. The filmmaking community is growing and it was very inspiring to see young people doing such things. I started to develop a story about their lives and my own life and that’s how we made the film.
North Shore News: You use a lot of location shooting.
Ahmad Abdalla: Well, I tried as much as we could to stick to what really happened and go to the places where they play music. I think we had close to 55 locations and something similar indoor.
North Shore News: When did you make the film?
Ahmad Abdalla: We finished the film a month ago in time for the Toronto International Film Festival. Vancouver is the second screening ever.
North Shore News: How much of your film is scripted as opposed to improvised?
Ahmad Abdalla: Most of the actors were nonprofessionals. We wanted to develop situations in front of the camera so I never wrote specific lines or dialogue for the actors. I just wanted them to be themselves and to speak their minds freely. My name is on the film as scriptwriter but I didn’t write the film, it was created more like a workshop by all of us.
North Shore News: What type of equipment did you use in the film?
Ahmad Abdalla: We shot the film using the Canon 7D. It’s very new for filmmaking and as far as I know this is probably the first feature film ever made entirely using this camera. I’ve never heard of another feature film using this camera. It was originally made to shoot still images but the amazing technology enables you to use it for films. We used two cameras and it was very handy to use them on location with nonprofessional actors. I didn’t want them to feel nervous or uncomfortable with film equipment around. The camera allows me to shoot in daylight or even nightlight without having any artificial lighting around. It is very small so nobody really notices that you have a camera. It doesn’t get in the way.
North Shore News: Have you used the camera on anything else before?
Ahmad Abdalla: Yes we’ve used it on short films, advertising and music clips. This camera was put on the market less than a year ago and nobody was really sure what it could do. We wanted to take the risk on this independent project. We used an eight-man crew. Eight of us attended the Toronto film festival and that was the whole crew. There was nobody else.
North Shore News: What is the alternative music scene like in Alexandria?
Ahmad Abdalla: I didn’t know anything about it a year ago and then I was visiting Alexandria and I heard about this 19-year-old artist who was making advertising for a band using graffiti art. I approached her and she introduced me to the band. All four members are girls and it’s a heavy metal band. This would be very uncommon in Cairo. Young girls in Alexandria are more into music and they want to have their own voice. That’s why I called the film Microphone because it’s a chance for everyone to have their own voice. We have heavy metal bands, rock bands, hip-hop artists. I picked nine bands for the film but there are many more in Alexandria.
North Shore News: Where do they perform?
Ahmad Abdalla: You can tell a band is doing well if they play in a club but most of them don’t have places to play. They look for audiences everywhere and they are growing very slowly as far as getting bigger audiences.
North Shore News: Is this scene unique to Alexandria?
Ahmad Abdalla: For sure there is more but I just highlighted Alexandria. It took me nine months to make the film but if anybody had the time to research the underground scene in Egypt they would be able to find other bands in other cities.
North Shore News: The music is Western influenced.
Ahmad Abdalla: In my film I tried to have as many bands as I could. There are five or six different genres but actually Oriental music is very popular in Egypt. In my film I concentrated on the bands in Alexandria and what they were playing and of course rock and hip-hop are Western influenced. That wasn’t an issue for me, that’s just the way it was.
North Shore News: You studied music didn’t you?
Ahmad Abdalla: Yes I played the viola but unfortunately I’ve forgotten everything I studied. During my music studies I started working as a film editor and I edited something like 10 feature commercial films in Egypt. I was far away from the music scene.
North Shore News: Did you study filmmaking?
Ahmad Abdalla: No, producers were looking for editors. I taught myself how to cut short films and commercials and that’s how I came into the field. I cut commercial films until I decided to make my own films — very low budget. It was a hard choice to make but I wanted to make films I really believe in.
North Shore News: Who do you make your films for? Who is your audience?
Ahmad Abdalla: I don’t know. All I try to do is be as sincere as I can. We will see. Hopefully this film will have some commercial potential so Egyptian audiences will get to see the film.
North Shore News: What do Egyptian audiences watch? Hollywood, Bollywood, local films?
Ahmad Abdalla: Hollywood and local films. We used to have Bollywood but not anymore because they wanted space for more local productions. Mainly you will find a lot of commercial Arabic films in the theatres in Egypt. We have 400 theatres in Egypt and most of them are playing totally commercial stuff. Independent films have to find four or five screens for a week or two weeks — this is the best we can do. Hopefully we can change that with this film because it is full of music. We are gambling this film will be more appealing. I learned from the young artists in Alexandria that we can make films without big stars or big budgets. We made a film with much less.
Microphone (Egypt, 2010) Director: Ahmad Abdalla. Cast: Khaled Abol Naga, Menna Shalabi, Yosra El Lozy, Hany Adel, Ahmad Magdy and Atef Yousef. Screening at Pacific Cinémathèque on Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 8:15 p.m. as part of The New Wave in African Cinema series running Nov. 1-3, 5-7. For more information visit thecinematheque.ca/the-new-wave-in-african-cinema.
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