What musical repression?
Courtesy: Ahmad Abdalla

Debuting against the backdrop of a revolution in early 2011, the timing of its release certainly played a role in the celebration and sympathy Ahmad Abdalla’s film Microphone met with among critics, film festivals, commentators and revolutionaries alike. Many considered the film an artistic prophecy, unmistakably reflecting the restlessness of a young generation denied opportunities for self-expression, development, mobility or even the chance to “live their lives.”  One scene is presumably a tribute to Khaled Said, the Alexandrian tortured to death in one of a string of significant events that preceded the revolution. The film cleverly utilizes the phenomenon of graffiti in its storyline, as a means for advertising a gig. This art form would later become a prominent cultural feature of the political revolution of a generation (see reviews here and here).

At first glance, the acclaim seems natural and deserved. And the film has more to offer on other levels as well. In what appears as a sharp break from Egyptian cinema’s long tradition of spreading a false consciousness, the film purports to diverge from cheap stories of underprivileged musicians succeeding against the odds of a harsh reality. Rather than resorting to a fabrication of reality in an attempt to play it safe, or look the other way in search of entertainment, it seems to present a new type of cinema that restores society’s political character, where music is a representation of history that is inextricable from social conflicts. As such, the film is an addition to two other distinctive and exceptional projects: Sherif Arafa’s Samaa Hoss (Silence!, 1991) and Khairy Beshara’s Ice Cream fi Gleem (Ice Cream in Gleem, 1992). But a closer look at Microphone reveals artistic and ideological problems in both the generation’s and the revolution’s cinema and music (commonly referred to as “independent” or “alternative”). These problems cast doubt on the authenticity of that divergence from long-established norms in Egyptian cinema.

Both in Egypt and abroad, negative criticism of the film focused solely on the flat characters and weak subplots. These are indeed essential flaws, and they bring up the issues of form and production. Paradoxically, a field of cinema that claims independence and fundamental distinction still succumbs to artistically questionable conditions that only harm its cause. In this case, what could ideally have been a great documentary — which seems to have been the director’s initial intention (see here and here) — has been inflated into a fiction to achieve the gratification associated with the idea of a long feature by a youthful director.

But another major flaw which, in my opinion, has been completely overlooked, is the subject itself: musical repression, or in more general terms, cultural discrimination. That is if we put aside the overcrowding by all the other broad headlines in the film — a cramming of ideas that signifies a worrying perpetuation of a desire by generations of filmmakers to send all political messages at once; or rather, to make a list of everything, for the sake of both sheer quantity and scoring firsts (the featuring of skateboarding is an example in this film).

A common point raised in reviews so far is the apparent influence of Bahman Ghobadi’s 2009 Iranian film No One Knows About Persian Cats on Microphone, or a striking similarity.[1] This observation is not necessarily negative, despite the implications of the director’s vehement defense against the point. Abdalla insists that, unlike the Iranian film, his film is far from pandering to western audiences. Yet he later expresses interest in the way that the world perceives “us,” and his comfort at what he describes as the film not falling victim to excessive localism.

A comparison between the two works reveals a lot about the subject of Microphone, and the problem with it. To start by comparing the circumstances, Microphone debuted in the biggest commercial movie theaters in Cairo and Alexandria without any censorship objections. The film was awarded first prize at the county’s main official film festival, hosted by the Egyptian government, and was subsequently aired on several Arab satellite TV stations. On the other hand, Ghobadi was exiled from Iran, and his scriptwriter imprisoned on charges of espionage. It goes without saying that the film was not released in theaters in Iran, nor did it reap any local awards. This contrast in the space and freedom allowed to filmmakers in the two countries takes us to a similar comparison between their respective independent, alternative or underground musical scenes. Indeed “underground” is the mot juste to describe that world in Iran. In the Iranian film a number of scenes show meetings between musicians who are completely unknown to one another. They struggle to communicate and collaborate in dark cellars and locations that are both symbolically and actually marginal. These meetings have to take place far from sight, in deserted areas or on the rooftops of residential buildings, with much caution due to fear that neighbors might call the police.

At that time, when Iranian artists and audiences faced mass imprisonment and prosecution, a seasonal festival, SOS (Save Our Souls [from mainstream music]), was being held in Egypt. Sponsors included Vodafone and it was hosted by the state-owned Bibliotheca Alexandrina, with participation from bands featured in the film, such as Masar Igbari. Interestingly, while the climax of Microphone is the banning of a street gig, since 2005 street carnivals have been held in Egypt in a high-end Cairo neighborhood under the supervision of Suzanne Mubarak. One of the main participants was Wust El Balad, the lead singer of which is actor and musician Hani Adel, also featured in the film. There are also several other available cultural outlets in Egypt, whether private or internationally funded, as well as local and foreign funding opportunities for concerts or albums by “independent” bands.[2]

“Let’s give our parents the chance to see us play, if only once,” says Persian Cats protagonist Negar with a mixture of hope and bitterness as she struggles with her partner, Ashkan, upon their release from prison. They are on a mission to complete the task of meeting other underground musicians and getting the required paperwork that will finally allow them to break free from their bigger prison and perform — even potentially live — in Europe. The sense of belonging here is to art. Exclusion and estrangement are absolute, and independence thus undeniable.

In a distorted replication of these themes, Microphone imposes on the original subject a lead character, Khaled, who returns from having lived abroad, and his ex-girlfriend who is leaving the country — and so on. Khaled’s journey intersects with another forced storyline: a couple of cinema students in a romantic relationship that is even more mysterious and dramatically void. Moreover, an unconvincing subplot about a website undermines the already frail story of the two students’ film project, which founders as a result of their disagreement. They use a shoebox to hide their camera, in another weak attempt to imply secrecy and hardship. The overall result is a pathetic claim of strife and resistance, which begs — in every aspect — a faint resemblance to Persian Cats. In contrast, the Cats are genuinely obscure, treated like filthy animals forbidden to exist in the public sphere. (The scenes in Microphone showing attempts to keep the fish alive are arguably another example of this naive echoing.)

“But you can’t play any kind of music here,” says Ashkan in a scene with Nader, another musician who helps Negar and Ashkan in their endeavor. Through a tragicomic storyline, Nader reveals the intricacies of the Iranian regime in a manner that makes the exaggerated and caricatured depiction of the government official in the Egyptian film seem meager in contrast. The scene in Ghobadi’s film reminds us of Soviet Union samizdat, where maintaining an interest in art and circulating artistic material was in itself an act of cultural resistance. That is in contrast to the bipolarity of the Egyptian artist and intellectual who seeks the sponsorship and protection of the state while claiming to oppose it and differ from it.[3] Microphone unintentionally proves the persistence of that duality. It seeks an audience by making concessions both on the artistic level and in terms of censorship. This strips the concepts of underground and alternative music of their meaning, and is also applicable to every other similar commercial cultural and artistic product.

Censorship in Egypt — which is usually much more ferocious in the face of any medium with wider public accessibility than a book (see footnote 2) — has nothing to worry about in Abdalla’s film. Abdalla and his colleagues seem to have satisfied themselves with the passing of some words here and there, such as “shit” and other ciphered terms (as in the scene where graffiti artists write a periphrasis of a swearword on the wall for the government official to see). Even the pun in the song “A H A” (an acronym for the translation of “I refuse this” according to the band, Y-Crew) is eliminated by self-censorship. Nevertheless, those will become additional reasons for the young generation Abdalla is addressing to feel proud of the film’s childish victories.

In Cairo as in Alexandria, for the film did not convince us of any uniqueness the latter possesses; underground artists find no problem with the sponsorship of large multinationals, or appearing in commercial movies and TV series. Some become advertising material and participate in conventional commercials. In a time when capital sells under the concept of social responsibility, it markets a cultural persona for itself in order to attract a younger audience, which — unlike older generations — is characterized by a fluidity in thought and ideology that is disguised as flexibility. This distortion takes us to the Mobinil ad that Abdalla claimed he had to make in order to support Farsh w Ghata (Rags and Tatters, 2013), his next project (so it seems the concessions made in Microphone were not enough). As far as this article is concerned, the Mobinil ad is instructive in two ways: on the limits of the “independent/alternative/underground” nature of the music in question, and on the ad’s direct connection with the director-writer’s awareness regarding the issue of cultural/musical repression in Egypt.

In a clearly apologetic tribute — though corrupted, adding insult to injury and amounting to an additional sin — the ad highlights local types of music, such as the simsimiyya, Sinai Bedouin and Nubian music (in addition to — of course — Cairene electro-shaabi and hip-hop featured in a tram in Alexandria). The overall message in the ad is a confirmation of national unity in spite of diversity, coated in corporate values inspired by a rhetoric of self-development. Egypt is portrayed in a sparkling idealized image of neoliberal hype. (What makes this worse in a revolutionary context is its counter-revolutionary dimension, reminding one of Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Solution, in which he mocks the argument that the post-revolutionary people should work harder to regain the government’s trust.) The apologetic rhetoric is repeated in Rags and Tatters, revealing a renewed sense of guilt, in a documentary scene that contains a statement by an oppressed moulid worker.

Late Egyptian film critic Sami al-Salamony noted sadly how promising and prominent Egyptian directors have deviated and deteriorated as a result of giving in to the terms of the market.[4] It seems the difference between preceding generations and the current more resourceful one is that the latter — while claiming that their concessions lie only outside the artistic field — offer an artistic rhetoric and impact on the public sphere that is at best distorted and contradictory. Their claim of artistic purity (or “sacredness”) is a meaningless repetition of ancient hypocrisy, which reminds us of Naguib Mahfouz’ response to Gamal al-Gheitany when he noticed a discrepancy between Mahfouz’s literature and what he wrote in newspapers. “Believe the art then,” said Mahfouz.[5]

It is useful here to remember how in the 1970s the political composer and singer par excellence, Sheikh Imam, transformed early twentieth century musician Sayyed Darwish’s song Salma Ya Salama (Welcome Back) into a parody sarcastically welcoming the Coca Cola brand in the rise of neoliberalism. (Interestingly, Darwish is remarkably present in Microphone and the young Alexandrian music scene. This calls for a separate comparison of the content, social awareness, experimentation, artistic development and independence of Darwish and his successors.) More than three decades later, Amr Diab exercised self-censorship (if not blatant corporate obedience) in abstaining from saying the words “Coca Cola” while singing Raseef Nemra Khamsa (Platform No. 5) on stage.[6] The song is from Ice Cream fi Gleam, which he starred in, one of the first films to address street music and production monopolies in a realistic and artistically superior manner, even though it depended on one of the most popular singers at the time.

All this confronts us with the hidden historical and social context in Microphone (perhaps if Abdalla had chosen a different path the film would have come out somewhat even in comparison to Persian Cats). For example, in Youssef Chahine’s Al-Asfour (The Sparrow, 1972), and in Cinema Institute graduation projects for at least the past two decades, Sheikh Imam is credited as “Imam Eissa” to appease censorship and bypass its restrictions. Despite a relative loosening of that grip in the final years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule — something partially attributable to the internet — a movie was not made about Imam and his companion, poet and lyricist Ahmed Fouad Negm, until after the revolution (regardless of that particular movie’s commercial opportunism) — although even the early days of his rule saw the running of the musical play Al-Malek Howa al-Malek (The King Shall Be the King, 1986), featuring poetry by Negm, which was reproduced 10 years later and aired on state-run TV.

The issue never stops at the repression of explicit political songs. In some countries, it reaches the point of an artist’s assassination (recently rapper Pavlos Fyssas in Greece, Ibrahim Qashoush in Syria, and less recently Victor Jara). Censorship takes an ethnic dimension in Egypt in the case of Nubians. An example is the police harassment of Khedr al-Attar in the 1980s for his wedding performances that included lyrics opposing Gamal Abdel Nasser’s displacement of Egyptian Nubians. At the same time “alternative/independent” music in Cairo was announcing, in the words of communist poet Fouad Haddad — whom Nasser imprisoned: “Oh Nubia I got my address back, Kom Ombo is pleasant and safe.” These words were performed by Mohamed Mounir, to music written by Ahmed Mounib — both Nubian.

Even if Abdalla did not wish to make an entire film about the metalheads crisis in Egypt (see here or here), which he witnessed in his adolescence, it’s strange that he did not refer to it in Microphone. (Notably, the contemporary phenomenon of stigmatizing metal by associating it with satanism is depicted in Persian Cats. And the Egyptian tragedy was revived — though briefly — by the rise of Islamists in Cairo (see here and here) in 2012.) In failing to make any reference to that, Abdalla missed out on a golden opportunity to give his project weight in form and content. If the young generation were a genuine concern, he would have avoided embarrassing his fellow citizens (the fish) in front of the Persian Cats.

In a country whose native music is repressed, exaggerating the extent of the claimed cultural repression of the music of a generation trying to hybridize and get creative is genuinely irksome. Ironically the song Zar, featured in the film, reminds us of an original type of “satanic” music (another example of a missed chance to make links, that also takes our attention to the confusion of zar music for moulid music in the song, perhaps for reasons of rhyme). Simsimiyya is another case where neoliberalism, power and the elite have come together to wage war against native music cultures. And the war on moulids is an excellent example of alliances between the police and religious forces,  timidly alluded to in the film.

The detachment of the filmmakers and the film’s characters from such issues is manifest in their resentment being directed at the interest taken in musicians who make covers of songs by the likes of Om Kalthoum, at the expense of the musicians featured in the film. The detachment becomes more surprising if we consider the struggle of unionized musicians, depicted in Adel Adib’s 1998 film Hysteria, especially because Microphone coincided with a revolution in which the demands of a young generation were supposed to go hand in hand with those of the workers. Otherwise, what meaning is left for the design of the film’s poster, which shows a microphone rooted in the ground? That is if we set aside the fetishized Alexandrianism in Microphone, following a similar fetishizing of Heliopolis in Abdalla’s first, much superior film. Fetishization takes a much higher level in Microphone, which at one point weaves together visuals with a song about Alexandria to reproduce the antiquated poetry of tribal pride. All this is in contrast to a brilliant political statement delivered through rap in Persian Cats: a song about the ugliness and oppression of Tehran, the living city, with no place for nostalgia.

A generational clash is all the artists of a rising generation see in Egypt. Even the narrow vision of the older generations that Microphone seems to criticize becomes meager when compared to victims’ reports of the prosecution of metalheads in the 1990s. At the time, some parents went as far as kicking their children out of their homes (as the social and political conflict took the form of an ostensible clash of generations). Instead, in Microphone we see a bland, contrived story in which a character called Shahin is accused of stealing his aunt’s jewelry and flees by way of a balcony. In another scene, Shahin raps before Khaled’s father — a retired and depressed musician — who asks him to slow down: a clever humorous touch that could have been developed to address the cultural gap. A parallel sarcastic moment in Persian Cats comprises a mockery of self and other when a farm worker complains that the cows on the farm have stopped producing milk since metal was played there. The issue goes beyond a mere generational gap. (In a related note, the late US singer Nina Simone’s refusal to recognize old-school rap — a creative invention by people of her race — was one aspect of the cultural, ethnic and classist contradictions of an artist who considered marriage to a white male an unacceptable concession, while she perfected classical piano and thus agreed to fight the white male on his ground.)

There are several examples of lost potential in Microphone. First and foremost, sacrificing the power of the original main story by letting it get lost in the noise. That story is the recourse of a girl band to wearing masks out of fear of their families and friends. Even the charged car scene with one of the girls’ boyfriend is frustratingly abrupt. (The band’s name, Maskara, is a brilliant blend of “mask” and a female cosmetic.) Another example of lost potential is what a documentary or semi-documentary could have revealed about the experience of musicians who experiment with new or hybrid types of music. (Persian Cats contains a dialogue about Kurdish indie-rock, but of course there the focus is on the reality of oppression.) A documentary could have focused on the development achieved in the three decades since the introduction of oriental jazz and rock by earlier musicians. The example of Working, an American musical reproduced several times since the late 1970s and originally inspired by author Studz Terkel’s interviews with workers as he recorded an oral history about labor, highlights Microphone’s failure to provide a bridge between musicians and their viewers as a mass society of waged workers. And another neglected aspect in Microphone — various nihilist, anarchist and other generational trends that contradict the perpetuation of nationalist, romantic and conservative notions that creep up on us through the film’s songs — is spot-lit by dialogue in Persian Cats about dark music.

Does the film exemplify a readymade consumerist formula that takes advantage of the attractiveness of novelty? We can at least hope that this was not a conscious process (or would it be better if it were?). Worthy of applause is the director’s tendency to experiment with a light digital camera, almost without a script. Yet the script’s flexibility cannot forgive the film’s weightlessness in perception. Common to each of the director’s three films is a promising artistic sensibility that suggests that his cinematic universe is developing. In addition, the films show a sensitivity that affirms a delicate attention to human detail. However, to be artistically convincing this generation must improve its capacity to analyze, make links and take serious interest in richer narratives. This will help create a smooth flow of form and content instead of the current confusion. Perhaps this generation should also reassess its ideological contradictions, especially in terms of excessive cynicism, which transforms everything into laughing material — sometimes unnecessarily. An example in Microphone is the passing of a useless moral judgment against the government official through his slip, “Software or hardcore?” to imply that the man who claims to defend morality watches porn.

What’s needed is a discussion of form and content, industry and art, and the meaning of artistic independence, as well as defining who the audience is and why. This is especially important when the contradictions and possibilities of the mechanical reproduction of artwork — as observed by Paul Valéry and Walter Benjamin — come together at the same time: Works of art are molded into industrial standardized units, but these, paradoxically, could also result in a plethora of possible forms serving the revolutionary cause.[7]

Microphone, as a restrained political film, can be interpreted as an unnecessarily long musical commercial, overstretched for reasons of production and ostentation, lacking in drama and ideological concepts. This should never have happened. However, the film does reveal — even if unintentionally — the unbalanced contradictions of a generation immersed in self-glorification while it simultaneously reproduces the rhetoric of its enemies.

This is a translation, co-edited by the author, of an article that will soon appear in Arabic on Terr.so, the forthcoming online film review from SeenFilms.com. It first appeared in Arabic on Ma3azef.com.

[1] See, for instance: This article in Al-Emarat al-Youm (Arabic); this article in Al-Masry Al-Youm (Arabic); this text on the Dubai Film Festival website (Arabic); and this review in Slant magazine (English).

[2] See: Rami Abadir’s article about the use of the term “independent” in the music scene, Charles Akl’s response and, on Ma3azef, Ayman Helmy’s comments (Arabic). Also see Ahmed Naji’s article about independent institutions.

[3] For a detailed discussion on this subject, see: “Between Scribes and Writers: the Contemporary Literary Field in Egypt” by Richard Jacquemond, translated into Arabic from the original French by Besheer al-Sebaay, Dar al-Mostaqbal al-Arabi, 2004.

[4] “Al-aamal al-kamila lilnaqid al-cinemaey Sami al-Salamony: Al-goze al-thany” (The Complete Works: Second Volume), Sami Al Salamony, edited by Yaaqoub Wahbi, the General Authority for Palaces of Culture, Cairo, 2001.

[5] “Naguib Mahfouz Yatadhakkar” (Naguib Mahfouz Remembers), Gamal Al Gheitany, Akhbar al-Yom, Cairo, 1987, p. 9; quoted in “Between Scribes and Writers” (see footnote 2).

[6] See commentary in Al-Akhbar by Mohamed Kheir (Arabic): “In simple terms, the song also speaks of social harshness, saying: ‘Abdallah Rushdi, a competent lawyer, brings a lawsuit in Bab al-Wazeer against Fikry the belila seller, because he once shouted in his sonorous voice.’ Then it describes the hysteria of the open-door era: ‘The Amana grocery and Noshi the saddle-maker are partnering in a company to open a boutique. They called for Abdo the poultry-seller to join them; he said in pride: I don’t like to have partners.’ The song goes on to describe what life has come to in a consumerist society: ‘If you get into business you live your life to the end of it, and if they sell a chicken you’ll get a commission.’ Finally we arrive at a society that’s filled with ‘Children aging while still toddlers, old movies, and a Coca Cola ad.’ A few days ago, viewers of a viral YouTube video were surprised when Amr Diab performed the last verse of the song without saying the words ‘Coca Cola.’ This does not seem to be a coincidence, as the Egyptian pop star repeated it twice while making a hand gesture. It seemed he was paying exaggerated respect to his advertising contract with Pepsi (Coca Cola’s competitor). Especially as reference to ‘Coca Cola’ in the song was in the context of criticism.”

[7] “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in: “Illuminations,” Walter Benjamin, Routledge, London, 2001.


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