Art and environment are passionately intertwined in Microphone, as are, to a less successful extent, traditional notions of fiction and nonfiction cinema. Ahmad Abdalla’s debut is structured around the dramatized odyssey of Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga), who, upon returning home to the Egyptian seaside city of Alexandria after seven years in America, finds himself increasingly drawn to the area’s burgeoning arts scene. The struggling musicians, graffiti kids, and amateur filmmakers with whom he comes into contact are a diverse bunch including hip-hop lyricists, an all-female metal outfit, and a graduate student couple. These last characters, Salma (Yousra El Lozy) and Magdy (Ahmad Magdy), are intent on recording the region’s bands through unobtrusive means (specifically, by shooting via a camcorder hidden in a shoe box) that Magdy believes is the purest way to capture reality.
As in Our Beloved Month of August, tensions between staged and verité modes course throughout: Khaled’s story, which regularly flashes back to a sorrowful reunion with a former flame now planning to depart for a PhD program in the U.K., as well as the tales of the various artists he encounters, are scripted. The musical performances, set partly to expressionistic montages of Alexandria’s streets, stores, shoppers, and skateboarders, prove to be concert-via-travelogue interludes of a more natural, documentary sort.
This synthesis lends Microphone an unruly vitality, though if messiness enhances its depiction of art’s role in Alexandrian life, it also frustrates consistent engagement with its narrative. Mood elicited through cursory brushstrokes takes primacy over in-depth characterizations or scenarios, and thus Khaled’s longing for his ex—which is mirrored by Magdy’s eventual sadness over a breakup with Salma—is a thinly sketched element that nonetheless contributes to the overarching sense of everyone’s hunger for a viable creative/emotional outlet. This desire manifests itself most bluntly, and yet still evocatively, during Khaled’s third-act attempt to stage a concert after the state-sponsored National Center refuses to fund works that openly criticize the government.
From a shallow subplot involving a music-selling street vendor operating next to a politician’s banner, to a finale of repressed voices that speaks, indirectly but urgently, to the anti-establishment fury behind Egypt’s recent political turmoil, Microphone posits art as inherently political, and Abdalla shrewdly weaves that notion into his many tangled plot threads. Nonetheless, populated by two-dimensional characters (and equally rough gender/generational dynamics) that are dropped and picked up at random, his story never compellingly coheres, and his haphazard stabs at self-reflexivity—burdened by the repeated term “Certified Copy” that evokes Abbas Kiarostami’s far-superior meta endeavor of the same name—plays like a film school thesis under construction.