On paper, Microphone sounds remarkably like Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, another documentary-style feature about a vibrant but endangered underground music scene. Both are set in Muslim countries with repressive governments, and both showcase young people who are trying to change an ancient city and culture. But Microphone, the second feature by director-writer Ahmad Abdalla, is to Persian Cats as the kiddie pool is to the deep end.
Persian Cats' story of two young musicians trying to get to a gig in Europe leaves no doubt about the power and potential fury of the Iranian state, but the only thing that comes into sharp focus in Microphone is Khaled, a lovestruck expat back home after a seven-year absence with just two goals in life: to get in touch with his homeland and to win back his old girlfriend. But the girlfriend is lost as the movie begins, on her way out of the country as Khaled coming back. Their banal hello-I-must-be-going reunion is played out in full, and an editing gimmick of reversing the chronology fails to add any real interest. Between flashbacks to their talk, we see Khaled (co-producer Khaled Abol Naga) wander the streets of Alexandria, befriending a loose-knit group of young artists (most of them real people playing themselves), who include musicians, a skateboarder, and a taciturn young graffiti artist and her sidekick. Meanwhile, a pair of shyly glamorous film students earnestly try to capture it all on video for their thesis project, while falling in and out of love.
The kids are all right, but none of them has the charisma or self-confidence to hijack the meandering narrative, so we're left to follow Khaled as he obsesses about what one of his coworkers calls his "fucked up depressing love stories." For a while he tries to get his new friends together to put on an underground concert, but the buildup to the event is so sporadic that the news that it won't happen after all feels anticlimactic. It's all played out in a style as endearingly dated as the rappers' rhymes, with way too much time lapse cinematography, too many montages, and too many unenlightening talking heads sequences where the main characters face the camera against a photogenic backdrop and say…nothing much.
What juice the film does have comes mostly from the amazing events that transpired in Egypt since Microphone's completion last year. These young, tech-savvy, gender-neutral Alexandria natives may not be the literal architects of Egypt's recent revolution; as they make clear in countless defensive references to Cairo, the capital city drives Egypt's cultural and political agenda. But it's easy to imagine people a lot like these sweetly defiant kids, with their American-accented idealizing of adolescent rebelliousness and individual freedom, following their Facebook friends to take Tahrir Square.
Microphone will screen March 29 and 31 as part of this year's New Directors/New Films.