What is the difference between a documentary and a scripted movie? This is the question raised early on by one of the characters in the Egyptian independent film Microphone. And while the underlying theme of the film is the underground art movement in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt, the real pull of the picture is the way writer and director Ahmad Abdalla presents it.
The film centers around Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga), an engineer who returns to his hometown of Alexandria after working abroad for the past seven years. Upon his return, Khaled unsuccessfully attempts to rekindle a romance with his former lover and finds that his relationship with his father is nearly non-existent. While seemingly lost in a city he once knew so well, Khaled, filled with confusion and self-pity, roams the streets of Alexandria trying to piece together all of the changes around him.
His salvation comes from stumbling upon the underground art scene that includes a colorful cast of characters including graffiti artists, skateboarders, film school students documenting the scene and musicians—ranging from hip-hop acts to an all-girl metal group to accordion players and rock bands. He finds solace in this group of youth counter-culturists as they too are trying to find themselves in a city that’s largely conservative views work in direct contrast of the art they are trying to create.
As far as the script is concerned, Microphone sometimes struggles to find its stride. While the theme of youth being oppressed by the powers-that-be is clear, other areas are not. There are reoccurring cut-scenes of Khaled and his former girlfriend reuniting, and these scenes end up being uninspired filler since all questions regarding their relationship were answered immediately without any follow-up needed. Then there’s a side-story revolving around the relationship between two film students, Magdy (Ahmad Magdy) and Salma (Yousra El Lozy). This may have been relevant if these characters’ relationship had been fully developed, but it ends up being a random side-note with answers that never materialize as questions mount.
But where the story stumbles, other areas excel. Microphone was conceived when writer/director Abdalla did his own wandering through the streets of Alexandria where he met many of the same characters that Khaled does in the film.
Abdalla created a fictionalized film based on the real people and stories from the actual underground art scene in Alexandria. And to keep steady with this reality, much of the film seems like it could very well be a documentary. Just as the film school students asked the question of what’s the difference between a documentary and a scripted-film, it seems that Abdalla had asked himself that same question and then made this film to challenge anyone’s answer.
Abdalla is documenting this scene as reality despite the fact that it is a scripted film. You can almost feel yourself following these characters as the cameraman, and bringing that reality to a fictional film is what makes Microphone stand out along with some occasional choppy editing techniques to give it a more authentic feel. It’s not just a bland story of a man trying to find himself amongst misunderstood youth fighting societal pressures and norms, but it’s a film that blurs the lines between reality and fiction, documentary and narrative.
So just as the Khaled and the underground art movement challenge the boundaries of what’s accepted in society, Abdalla challenges the boundaries of filmmaking styles and genres, which is the real accomplishment of Microphone.