Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2011 9:38 am 
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An Alexandrian expatriate finds a mélange of new arts in bloom

Everything Egyptian tends to look a bit different since the youth revolution of 25 January. So it is with this collective, multi-voice film from last year about the arts in contemporary Alexandria, the sunny, breezy port city north of Cairo. Anchored somewhat vaguely by the handsome, Mastroianni-lookalike Khaled (Cairo media personality Khaled Abol Naga ), an expatriate returning to his native Alexandria after seven years in the States, the film depicts a multiplicity of musical, rap, and hip hop artists and bands living under the radar in the city. Special credit is due to film editor Hisham Saqr for interweaving various threads in ways that are seamless and sometimes very telling. The storyline is too slight to make for a fully coherent film, but there is much life here, and certainly a different world from those whose idea of Egyptian arts is Yousuf Shaheen and Umm Kulsoum.

The wryest scenes, post revolution, are those that feature a self-important government cultural official called Saleh (Khaled pointedly can never quite remember his name), who sees music groups in his office and lays down the law about what they can or can't do if they want to be included in a sanctioned show or receive state funds. In the end he takes away whatever he has offered, all the while babbling about "democracy" and "freedom of expression" -- and finally admits that the big prize is going to go not to the best singing group we hear but to an unseen woman who does covers of Umm Kulsoum songs. For a brief moment, a particularly angry rap group actually chants about revolt, as images -- pale ones, as if a fantasy -- of an actual street demonstration are shown. That was then. Even if there still won't be funds, "freedom of expression" is not an empty phrase in Egypt now. The Salehs of the country are no longer in charge of stifling Egyptian cultural innovation.

While Khaled is looking for new music or rap groups (Masser Egbari, Mascara,and Y-crew are three that he finds), he's being filmed by a couple of lovebirds (who break up midway) pursuing a degree in film at a Jesuit college. In a parody of academic dead-ends, another film student's thesis project is simply talking into the camera, and he can't get started. One rap group's member works at a fish market where he symbolically rescues a fish that has miraculously stayed alive for hours out of water. Another rap band member is held prisoner by his family because they think he's stolen his mother's gold jewelry. He jumps off the balcony and is rescued by friends waiting with a big Egyptian festival tent to catch him. Several groups gather with sound equipment in a square and begin performing to a small audience -- but are gently nudged to move on by cops. Also omnipresent is Naseer, a long-haired young skateboarder who probably should be in school, but is another contact for Khaled for the music and graffiti underground. He and the soon to be lovelorn student filmmaker show that young Egyptian males can be as longhaired and inarticulate as any westerners. In yet another little subplot, a man is selling pirated recordings in front of a big political poster.

On the personal side, Khaled meets with his old girlfriend Hadeer (Menna Shalabi), who while he was pining for her and planning to come home, was longing to leave, and she's now going to London to get a Ph.D. Her message is a familiar one of Egyptian films. She feels that in the liberal West everyone can live in their own world. In Egypt, she feels, there is only one world and that everybody has to live in. She finds Egypt stifling and has had enough. He had only wanted to get back together with her. He smiles with that charming sadness he has as if to say, "How could this not be enough?" Since he's back everything has changed. To begin with, his relationship with his father has deteriorated. He stays with an uncle, who seems depressed till the escaped rapper takes refuge with them and he perks up.

The shifts from scene to scene are seamless and rhythmic, and nearly always herald a new sound and a new group, including several pop-folksingers (western style, but in Arabic), a woman's group that wants to wear masks and insists on singing in English (not acceptable to the government cultural official Saleh), an accordionist who plays in evocation of Umm Kulsoum's songs of the mid-Sixties, and more. In some ways Microphone reminds one of Fatih Akin's 2005 Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, which is a chronicle of many styles practiced in the city, notably rock, Turkish style. But Abdallah opts out of thoroughly spotlighting and identifying individual groups and styles in favor of conveying an "underground" music scene that comes across as energetic but surreptitious, in need organization and performing venues.

It thus becomes Khaled's aim to set up a studio or foundation for the unknown groups and performers. However when the government official withdraws any offer of either a venue or funds, Khaled moves to the idea of a sidewalk cafe. Then even that is withdrawn when (in a hint of Islamic repression) men say the street is their open-air mosque, and can't be used for music. Finally a scattering of the musicians is down the the sea, where graffiti on the rocks symbolize underground expression. We have not particularly gotten anywhere. But we've moved with Khaled toward enthusiasm for a world of new more contemporary (if less distinctly Egyptian) performing arts.

Hisham Saqr won a well-deserved best editing prize at Dubai for this film, which was also shown at Toronto, London, and other festivals. Seen and reviewed as part of the New Directors/New Films series presented March 23-April 4, 2011 by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, NYC.

Poster from Abol Naga's blog: "In every street of
my countrythe voice of freedom is calling"
(revolutionary song) - "THE REVOLUTION OF 25 JANUARY"

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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