Singapore International Film Festival

An Egyptian satire that resonates with arts workers in Singapore

Microphone by Ahmad Abdalla is a study of artists who live in the city of Alexandria. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Microphone by Ahmad Abdalla is a study of artists who live in the city of Alexandria. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

There is a stretch of bleak comic satire in the Egyptian film Microphone (2010) that should resonate with anyone working in the arts in Singapore.

A government culture officer is auditioning acts for a state-sponsored show and is shown shooting down a group of young musicians because their music strays too far from traditional genres.

"I'm sorry. Your music is good, but the common people will not be able to understand it," he says.

"My hands are tied, I'm acting on behalf of the people. But I like your music. I think you're good. I used to be an artist like you," he adds, as if shifting responsibility to "the people" while stating his credentials would help ease their frustration.

Ahmad Abdalla, 35, the Film-maker-In-Focus at the Singapore International Film Festival, says the scene was born of his encounters with panels who hold the keys to government arts funds.

Speaking to Life! on the telephone from Cairo, Egypt, he says that the artist-turned-culture officer "is the kind of person we see everywhere in the world".

"I've met a hundred of them. I've sat in front of them and they say, 'I love you, I am on your side, I want to give you this grant.' But they give it to the most trashy thing that nobody will want to see because it has been done 30 times before," he says.

In her message in the festival programme, film festival executive director Wahyuni Hadi, 38, called Abdalla "a significant new voice".

Elsewhere in the book, he is described as the maker of "astute and revealing studies of contemporary Egyptian society".

Four of his films will be screened at the festival, and they run the gamut of themes, from the personal to the socio-political.

His latest, Decor (2014, 119 minutes) is a psychological drama about a woman struggling to keep a grasp on reality; Heliopolis (2009, 101 minutes) is Abdalla's feature debut and looks at the lives of six citizens of the title city over the course of one day; Rags And Tatters (2013, 87 minutes) follows the journey of a man seeking shelter in Cairo after the events of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and sees the aftermath through his eyes.

Microphone (2010) is another study of a social milieu, this time of the artists who live in the city of Alexandria.

Abdalla will speak at question-and-answer sessions held after the screenings.

The roots of Microphone sprouted after Abdalla, who is not married and is based on Cairo, paid a tourist visit to Alexandria. He was awestruck by the coastal city's healthy arts scene, which encompasses everything from graffiti painters, to rappers and heavy mental bands. Something about its scenic beauty and being away from the the throb of Cairo seems to encourage freedom of expression, he says.

He started to shoot a documentary about the artists but later decided to turn it into a fiction film because he felt it would get closer to the truth of their lives. In the finished work, the documentary footage is included and the artists play themselves. Only a handful of characters are portrayed by actors, he says.

The film was made before the failed Egyptian Revolution, one of the series of protests that comprise what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, an event marked by citizens across the Middle East demanding social justice, jobs and freedom.

Graffiti art boomed after the Revolution sputtered, he says.

"Microphone is about the small minority of artists speaking their mind. A microphone is something that makes a voice louder," he says.