'Be sincere ... people will click with it'.
DUBAI: Egyptian writer-director Ahmad Abdalla has distinguished himself as one of the most distinctive cinematic voices in the Arab world's oldest and most-distinguished film industry.
He has released two feature films in two years, a rarity in this part of the world, and his second feature, "Microphone," has won a range of festival prizes, including the Carthage film festival's Golden Tanit for best film and the top prize in the Cairo film festival's Arab competition.
With two features coming so closely together, comparisons are unavoidable. Audiences have remarked upon how different the hyperactive and irrepressibly musical "Microphone" is from the still and silent "Heliopolis."
"After watching both films," says Abdalla, "it occurred to me that what makes 'Heliopolis' and 'Microphone' different, and similar at the same time, is that 'Heliopolis' is trying to read and analyze the current situation based on what happened in the last 50 years in Egypt C* It's loaded with everything that happened in the past, both for the city and the characters.
"But 'Microphone' is trying to read or analyze the current situation based on what's going to happen in the future. We are here now but we're here because of what will happen. It's suspended."
There are striking similarities between the films too. Both deploy ensemble casts selected from across class and generational lines and both stories are told from the perspective of likeably lovelorn and lonely central characters (both played by Khaled Abu Naga, the film's co-producer).
Both movies are set in historically significant locations (the Cairo district of Heliopolis and Alexandria both being nodal points of pre-revolutionary cosmopolitanism) and characters' research or documentary-making projects are central to both stories.
"Both films are based on personal experiences," Abdalla says. "I wanted to explain how I saw 'Heliopolis' as reflecting everything happening to Cairo in the last 50 years. I wanted to share my personal stories to help people try to see the city through the characters.
"This is true of 'Microphone' too. My first inspiration was Aya, an 18-year-old street artist [who plays a young graffiti artist in the film]. She has her own workshop and is very confident in her work.
"She's making art for the joy of making, for itself, and I thought this is very similar to the way that my colleagues in the independent film scene and I make our films.
"We don't do it for money and fame or 'back doors to the market,' as the Egyptian newspapers have said. We're not against the market, but when you put the effort into something, try to be as sincere as possible -- whether it be film or graffiti or music -- people will click with it."
"Microphone" has a lot of documentary about it.
On one hand, there are among the characters a clutch of documentary filmmakers taking a workshop with Egyptian indy-film icon Yousry Nasrallah.
On the other hand, Abdalla says the project actually began as a documentary about Alexandria's underground music scene. "Then we decided, no, we never have a chance to see documentary in Egypt. So we decided to make it as a fiction film and spent six months converting these documentary stories into fiction."
The "plot" of "Microphone" is thus a compilation of the personal experiences of the young artists and musicians who feature in the film, and the crew.
"Of course I added a few lines related to personal experiences as well. The guy and his relationship with his girlfriend who's leaving the country to make a Ph.D., is a very personal story," he says. "And Khaled [Abu Naga] was involved in this as well. We feel that if people are going to share their personal lives with us on the screen, then we have to share too. We wanted to be equal with them."
Another point of comparison between "Heliopolis" and "Microphone" is that both stories have virtually silent male characters who live near the bottom of the social ladder. In one case the lower-class figure is a policeman, stationed near a Heliopolis church. In the other, he's a homeless hawker of pop music cassettes who takes shelter under the election poster of a local politician.
"It's quite obvious why these characters are here," Abdalla shrugs. "There are many characters who are unable to speak. The most important question for me is, 'Are they willing to speak at all?' Is it a matter of choice or a matter of force? I think some people choose to be silent, to do nothing, to live day by day.
"In 'Microphone,' the guy is under the protection of the election sign of a very important politician. He feels like this is going to protect him for a long time.
"We made this story because we have the unfortunate story of Khaled Said, a young man who was brutally murdered on the street by two guys. People are saying they were police, though no one knows what the truth is."
Unlike so many contemporary Egyptian films -- which are so didactic in expressing their social conscience that they seem to subordinate cinema to sociology -- "Microphone" doesn't lay out weighty character and narrative background. The writing is as elusive as a short story, allowing the audience to piece together the characters' back-stories themselves.
Abdalla says he doesn't even compose his actors' dialogues. "We describe a conversation vaguely and when we workshop the script, the actors come up with their own vocabulary, their own ways of explaining things."
He doesn't attribute his film language to exposure to foreign cinema.
"Actually, it comes from my experience working in Egyptian films," he says. "I worked as a film editor in Egypt for 10 years with many very talented Egyptian directors who still come out with very poor films C* They can be obsessed with C* the delivery -- how people will know that this guy is Muslim and that girl is Christian.
"But C* people will relate to your film more when you give them their share. The actors have their share in the film, even Tarek Hefni [the director of photography], has a huge share in the writing of the script and choosing the locations. We're trying to be as democratic as possible.
"This is true for the audience too," Abdalla adds. "The audience needs the space to feel that they're not idiots, that everything has to be spelt out [as if they were] children."
"When we were in Tunis for the Carthage festival, a young woman in the audience stood and said, 'This film is the story of Tunisian youth. It's just in Egyptian dialect. [During a screening at the Dubai film festival,] an Emirati audience member said the same thing about "Heliopolis," even though she'd never been to Egypt. I think this [reaction is possible because of] the space you give to people, so they can adjust the story to their own lives."
Abdalla attributes the didacticism of much Egyptian film to elitism.
"Filmmakers are elitist," he says. "They live [and socialize] in their own communities C* But every filmmaker has [a residue of a] leftist in him C*
"This idea of 'speaking for poor people' is itself elitist. You must just tell your story as you see it, without [trying] to speak for the common man C* [Some filmmakers] go to the extreme of saying that people who are living in the slums are a danger to society. To protect ourselves from them, we have to protect them and to find what they need."
Nowadays, Abdalla is looking forward to having his work seen by Egyptians in the coming weeks, which is also rare for most independent filmmakers.
"In 'Heliopolis' we completely failed to have the film screened in Egypt," he recalls. "With 'Microphone,' for the first time it will be in many [perhaps as many as 25] Egyptian theaters. For the first time audiences will be able to watch this cinema -- independent, alternative, call it what you want -- and say whether they want it or not."
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|Publication:||The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)|
|Date:||Jan 4, 2011|
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