A Revolutionary road in Egyptian Film Production
I. Introduction: Without a shadow of doubt , the revolution has fostered a huge sense of freedom, and this freedom is illustrated in all kinds of creative arts and modes of expression, In regard to this stir, Independent film movement manifested this revolution as well and took root in Cairo challenging film and TV industry’s old guard. As it is mostly Egyptian independent and low budget movies that represent Egyptian cinema in international film festivals, according to Egyptian film critic Ola al-Shafei. “In addition to their engaging plots, these movies present a vast array of creative writers, directors and actors”. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that there is a scarcity of production and distribution companies willing to take the risk of non-mainstream movies. (Elwakil, 2010). Of the most prominent film that truly reflects this repression in Egyptian art scene and society is the independent Film Microphone, which was completed in 2010, Ahmed Abdallah’s film Microphone caused quite a stir in Egypt and abroad, It is seen as a film that virtually predicted the revolution, for whoever sees Microphone will realize that this state of affairs is untenable. Young people in Egypt are in turmoil. They want freedom and are fed up with control by the state and harassment by the police.
It is easy to imagine that those who poured into Tahrir Square in the spring of 2011 were none other than the same disillusioned youth portrayed in Microphone, desperate for a platform to express themselves under a regime which amongst other things sought to stunt creativity. The fact that it was released in Egypt on Jan 25th could not be more poetic. (Awad, 2011) “What was once underground is now above ground. And what was above ground, the regime, is now under.” Said Abou el Naga, the actor and Co- producer of Microphone film. (Atalla, 2010) I had a chance to personally converse with the director Ahmed Abdallah during the screening of my short film in Freiburg film festival, where we were the Egyptian participants in the festival, screening films under the theme “Arab spring”.
In my opinion, Abdallah being originally an editor and doesn’t have the stereotypic academic route of Egyptian film makers, helped in the Egyptian audience’s reception of his film and added to his authentic and credible impression, as to feel that an “anonymous” artist had reached with his “independent” film to international screenings and awards is always worth of respect, however I later understood from my research and published interviews with the producer Mohamed Hefzy that they were financed by one of the biggest distributors in Egypt, Hefzy made it clear himself that they have not produced a totally independent film, as It’s not a film done outside of the system from a financial point of view, only in the way it was produced (Sarant,2010) which still brings Microphone forward as a community-based work, at the heart of which lies a dissenting interesting process of film making worthy of study and an analytical view of how it was produced. (Awad, 2011)
II. Film concept, development and Revolution envisage: The film is blurred between a documentary-styled fiction-film reminiscent of Bahman Ghobadi's No One Knows About Persian Cats. There are indeed many similarities that the films share, however, Microphone was in fact more documentary-styled and unscripted. Microphone is also less suspense and tension in comparison too. “It was never supposed to be a film about music, but about freedom of Expression, about the voices of these young people who are not heard.” said Abdalla. It started when One day he was walking around in Alexandria and saw this Graffiti, which caught his attention. Where he got to meet Aya, an underground graffiti artist in Alexandria whom she connected the film crew with all the other underground artists and musicians, like Mascara, young girls who would meet to rehearse their music and actually have their own songs, but because of their families constrains they sing with their identities covered. He was touched of how these artists are genuinely doing this for the own sake and passion, for themselves, not for a certain career. A graffiti artist doesn’t even sign his/her work and doesn’t get paid which is similar to independent filmmaking, he said. So Abdalla puts a semi activist hat on, his main quest is to promote those artists he met in Alexandria and that, at the oneset; he wanted to make a documentary about them. (Atalla, 2010) In the film itself, Abdalla interrogates the function of documentary art through a dialogue between a couple in the film, Salma (Yousra al-Lozy) and Magdi (Ahmed Magdi), who are both filmmakers venturing to make a film about Alexandria’s underground artists and struggling to position themselves there. On the other side Abdalla said in his interview with Egypt Independent that he shifted to fiction because he wanted the film to be more accessible and to attract the producer. In Microphone the borders between feature film and documentation are really blurred, which is the factor that made it lower in its production than any independent fiction film, the documentary part of the film had most of the actors play themselves as they are in fact the real-life Alexandrian underground musicians, graffiti artists, skate boarders, hip hopers and filmmakers. (Awad, 2011)
Built Around the central theme of youth and artistic expression, the film explores a number of dichotomous themes such as art and resistance, fiction and reality, male and female through their multiple stories. One of the very plus points in the film was the very real and authentic dialogue and the many Improvisations, Abdalla explains that the script was written and compiled once. He never really worked on it several times or rewrote it, he rather looked at it in a broader aspect, as he believed that if he kept on repeating or stressing on certain parts it would feel ‘worked’ rather than genuine.” He used to speak with the cast and see what they would suggest or like to add to the character. For instance, Atef, the cassette vendor, from Alexandria, he would sit in the alleys and came back with a strange pair of sneakers, claiming that all guys there wear them, Yosra (the filmmaker) wore her own clothes and so one. Most of the details stem from teamwork, which made the film entangle itself in the layered realities that its characters come from, explained Abdalla. (Atalla, 2010)
The film proposition was bringing all these underground artists together which comes from the main character Khaled (Khaled Abol Haga who was also a co-producer of the film), he takes the viewer by hand and plays the fiction part of the film, as an engineer who has just returned his home city after many years abroad and longs to restore the view of the culture along with his old bruised relationship with Meena Al Shalabi), to find that she is planning to leave herself. While attempting to interrogate this return to a city that has undergone so much change, he immerses himself in
rediscovering it through the lens of this thriving underground art scene. (Elwakil, 2010)
That fertile art scene was in a state of crisis for being constantly pushed to the margins by the mainstream and always lacking a platform, When security prevented Khalid and the artists from formally inhabiting the street, he put forward a more urgent crisis, engaging with all those who have reclaimed the streets with their artwork, words or dreams. In a way, it’s a line of institutional critique that adds depth to the film’s proposition. Abdalla also orchestrates these underground artists re-positioning in the film plot. As In "Microphone," those artists become center stage; they redefine Khaled’s character in the film, and the main story with his bygone beloved subtly retreats, as Abdalla introduced that storyline via a rendezvous that moves backwards, ending at the beginning, and played Besides the storyline of these underground art scene in Alexandria. The revolution spirit is predicted and portrayed by how these artists aimed to recover the narrative of the city and reintroduce it in light of the minutiae of its backstreets and underground world that, rather than decaying, have become spaces for reviving homegrown creativity that rebels against all constrain, censorships, authorities and aimless traditions and all what lies in between. The lyrics of the playing band are jovial, metaphorical and honest as they speak to a persistent and lagging literature that
only constructs a nostalgic image of Alexandria as a formerly cosmopolitan city that is now a much more populated, and deteriorating city. (Atalla, 2010)
III. Film Producer talks about production methods & “star system”: Besides attracting a co-production deal with Mohamed Hefzy and Khaled Aboulnaga, both of whom are firm believers in Abdalla’s quest to promote the artists, the picture does a good job introducing Alexandria’s lesser-known art scene. "Microphone" is the first feature ever to be entirely shot using the Canon 7D photographic camera printed in 35 mm. The filmmaker’s choice of medium stems from his strong belief in low-budget movie production. Visually the scenes of Alexandria’s Mediterranean coast and the aged and worn-out baroque buildings were helpful, it was impressively shot in its entirety in just four weeks. (Elwakil, 2010) Moreover, Abdalla himself actually pushed forward a new talent in the film, bringing forth Tarek Hefny, the DOP of ‘Microphone’, who never shot a film before is now one of the most prominent and awarded cinematographers in Egyptian ads and films. “There is a chance to pull out a new generation of talents and stars but you have to make very good films to be able to launch them. Because if you don’t, people are going to watch the stars even if they make bad films. Unless you make a great film, well-distributed and well-marketed, then it’s impossible to compete with bigger films.” Said the renowned film producer, and scriptwriter Mohamed Hefzy (Sarant, 2010)
Hefzy produced a number of films that have been recognized worldwide and won international awards, including Tahrir 2011: the Good, the Bad and the Politican. Both the audience and award committees have constantly received Hefzy’s work with great acclaim. This has placed him on a fresh content-based platform in the Arab world, proving that stereotypes can be broken, He also founded Film Clinic in 2006 which is now recognized as one of the leading Production companies in the MENA region through creating unique feature films, and documentaries, that tell unprecedented stories of people, places, and philosophies, Film clinic is also a ‘big
brother’ figure to many young aspiring talents, who need the inspiration and encouragement, as workshops are made to empower scriptwriters in becoming the best they can be, Hefzy also teaches scriptwriting courses in the American University in Cairo, his philosophy is to blend the creative, vibrant ideas of the young generation with the expertise of the best in cinema in an aim to present strong movies to audiences of exquisite taste, and an equal admiration to the beloved silver screen.(Film clinic.net)
In an interview by Al-Masry Al-Youm journal, Hefzy talked about Microphone film production in the context of independent versus mainstream cinema, as well as Egypt's star system
Before “Microphone” he produced four films which, in terms of budget and boxoffice, were medium budget films. “Microphone” is definitely a departure from that kind of movie, with an (estimated) Budget of 3,500,000 EGP pounds, he said it was harder for him to do this smaller film, because he had to learn to work within the constraints of independent, low-budget films, what helped him is that the team working on the movie understood the concept of “independent” and did not have the same expectations of getting paid nearly as much as the industry standards, and most of the film costs were on the its distribution nationally, and not in its actual making or the typical astronomical star’s fees.
Moreover, he had to learn how to do a film with a very small crew and how to organize logistics with an average of eight people in the crew, excluding actors. On the other hand, the movie was possible also because of this limited team and the small portable camera which enabled them to be very mobile and people don’t pay attention to them in the streets, makes it easier to shoot outdoor scenes which also helped to create a feeling of intimacy with their actors as they all feel engaged in the production process. (Sarant, 2010)
In my opinion, an important key factor in this smart production was minimizing yet not fully abandoning the “star system”, while most of the other actors in the film were “acting virgins”, the film Starred only two famous faces (khaled and Menna) from the mainstream commercial films which added a lot of weight to the film in my view, and made it more accessible to the Egyptian audience, as well as to receive and trust the film more than any typical anonymous “Indie” film.
Hefzy explained that the Egyptian cinema is now evolving towards a less star-driven market to the benefit of fresh blood and new actors, though the stars still pretty much control a big percentage of the market, but producers and distributors now have a really strong will to change that. Some of the biggest failures of the past few years had big stars in them, so there is a possibility of these typical films becoming extinct because half of the budget is allocated to the star, leaving very little money for the quality of the production. There is also a desire for young, new talents. (Sarant, 2010)
(Menna shalaby – the famous star from the commercial films)
IV. “Microphone” ’s Distribution, Publicity and Market Performance: As for the film ‘s distribution, Hefzy said that he had to sound confident even though he wasn’t very certain whether the distributors would go for it because they had not read the script, but he made it clear that they had enough trust in him because of the previous work they had done together to give them the financial backing and guarantee the film’s distribution. (Sarant, 2010) Which in my opinion the most influential factor that distinct this film than all the other independent films because the national film theatre in Egypt is so established which demands only few rigid routes, you should either be a graduate from the higher institute of national cinema and have your cinematic ID that permits you to exhibit your film in the national theatre or have the required amount of money to sell your film as a private sector film production or you should be well-connected, and in this case, I realized how Abdalla was very well connected I have to say. Hefzy explained as they succeeded in the Egyptian screening and the film publicity was taken care of in terms of distribution, him and Khaled Abu el Naga, the coproducer, and pushed the film out into the international market.(Sarant,2011_ Where "Microphone" received international recognition and won numerous awards, like the feature film Golden Tanit at the 23rd edition of Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia,which is a great achievement for Egyptian cinema according to the Egyptian film critic Tarek al-shenawy, as he explains The last Egyptian movie to win the Golden Tanit award was Youssef Chahine’s "Al-Ikhtiyar" (The Choice) in 1970. "Microphone" was screened for the first time for an Arab audience in Tunisia and was warmly received by the local audience, says the film’s screenwriter and director Ahmad Abdallah, Egyptian audiences had the chance to see "Microphone" at December’s Cairo International Film Festival, was also screened commercially in the city theatres. (Elwakil, 2010) Though Commercial cinema has suffered over the past years as filmmakers and production companies from submitting to the limited visions of Egyptian movie stars, From the reactions of the microphone film screening in Egypt there seems to be a
huge response.Perhaps the commercial screening of "Microphone" will be the beginning of a new movement in Egyptian cinema, providing incentive for young filmmakers and actors to experiment. (Elwakil, 2010) Important to mention, that I personally think the film market performance globally was still higher than the national response, as it won other numerous awards like GroĂ&#x;er Preis der Stadt Freistadt from Festival Der neue Heimatfilm, and Special Mention from Granada International Film Festival Cines del Sur and more. I believe that such global acclaim stems from the western interest to see what is going over there in the Arab spring and what buttons were pushed that caused such a revolutionary wave in the Arab world and honesty microphone film quite satisfy their interest and truly did reflect the Egyptian repressed society and art scene.
V. Egyptian Revolution fosters Film culture & production in Egypt: Since 25 January, Egyptian filmmakers of different generations have begun working on screenplays inspired by Tahrir Square and have been very active in this Egyptian revolution, Hefzy said, “Other directors like Ahmad Abdallah (‘Microphone’) have been on the frontlines of the protests and have faced beatings by the police, He added, In past years, festivals had difficulty finding local films to represent the country once known as the "Hollywood of the Arab World." But now the revolution give a big boost to cinema, art and creativity, one simply cannot count the number of actors and artists in Tahrir Square,” Egyptian cinema seems to have started to bounce back after two decades marked by low production and quality. “However, Freedom is one thing. But knowing what to do with it is another story,” Hefzy added. (Sarant, 2010) Abdalla is now one of six chosen persons to participate in the restructuring of the National Cinema Center. They 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 should be able to 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,” says Abdalla. (Awad, 2011)
To conclude, New forms are being introduced into independent filmmaking in an attempt to put revolution into action, democratize and reshape the rigid film scene in Egypt, talented film makers are no longer stopped by producers nepotism and managed to pave their own way out from the commercial mainstream, In "Microphone," case director Ahmed Abdullah mixes documentary and fiction, and abandoned the “star system” which serves as a point of departure and a new beginning in the process of film production.
I believe that the Egyptian independent cinema now has the power to involve real people in real stories after the misguiding of the media institutions empowered by the old repressive, corrupt regime. Now is a new era for Egyptians to see and face the real streets and facts. It reminds me of Neo-realism wave in Italy after the war when there were no decent studios, and it was the birth of a new wave based on people's needs and new circumstances. Furthermore, are the advances and the access of digital technology, which opened a wide door for a new generation of artists to experiment with different types of film, As the number of independent films is now on the rise, multiple revolutionary roads for independent production have been paved and there is no going back.
VII. References: •
Elwakil, M. (2010) “Independent Egyptian films win awards abroad”, Egypt Independent,
Sarant, L. (2010) “Making dissident movies in a friendly way”,Egypt Independent.
Awad, S. (2011) “The revolution reshapes Egyptian cinema. Egypt Independent.
Attalah, L. (2010) “Festival Films, critic's pick: Egypt's 'Microphone”, Egypt Independent.
Goodfeloow,M. (2012)” Egyptian film rebels form breakaway union”, Screen Daily.
Mibrashi,M. (2010) FILM REVIEW: MICROPHONE (2010)| DIR. AHMED ABDALLA, Arab British Centre,The Arab World
Microphone film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH9K4NrstUk