Factory Girl / Fatat al Masnaa
Directed by Mohamed Khan
2013 | Egypt
Two years after the mass demonstrations in Egypt, the socially engaged filmmaker Mohamed Khan has come up with what initially appears to be a typical Egyptian romp. A handsome new supervisor Salah (Hani Adel) is appointed to a clothes factory where there is much hilarity among the roomful of seamstresses, a happy bunch labouring at their sewing machines.
One in particular has other ideas. Influenced by the romantic movies and saccharine Egyptian pop songs, Hiyam (Yasmin Raeis) falls in love with the supervisor and sets out to ensnare him – with little or no encouragement on his part. The seamstresses invite him to the seaside for their official factory day off and they are all bouncing in the sea around him like infatuated schoolgirls. But he becomes ill with appendicitis, and Hiyam slowly ingratiates herself to his family, bringing the best white cheese from her low-income neighbourhood since that is all his delicate stomach can digest. Hiyam also helps his sister alter her clothes and makes herself generally useful to Salah’s mother who tries to pay her for her efforts. Each time Hiyam refuses the money so that she can be perceived as a useful family friend rather than a potential suitor, which she hopes she will become.
Khan, an admirer of the iconic Egyptian film actress Soad Hosni, often evokes Hosni’s classic performance in Watch Out for Zouzou in his own film, Factory Girl. For instance, he shows Hiyam skipping down the stairs of the supervisor’s family apartment to the lyrics ‘Bambi, bambi, bambi’ (Rosy, rosy, rosy) ringing in her ears. In another scene she tries on her mother’s white wedding dress. Her little sister puts on one of their mother’s old dresses that once was considered entirely innocent; except that this is modern-day Egypt where showing an inch of a woman’s forearm is consider risqué. Hiyam is lost in her own romantic dream when in reality there can be no future between herself, a fatherless child of the slums, and a middle class factory supervisor. Gradually Salah’s mother becomes wise to Hiyam’s plan once she discovers her alone in the house with her son.
As Daily Star’s Jim Quilty writes in his review of the film, ‘Boy Meets Girl and the State of the Nation’, ‘For viewers with a casual knowledge of decades of Egyptian popular cinema practice, this storyline will sound very familiar. Egyptian romances – whether inflected with comedy and song and dance or not – have been pairing rich boys with poor but good-hearted girls (and vice versa) since before a youthful, pre-mustachioed Omar Sharif appeared on the scene.’
After a pregnancy test is found in the women’s lavatory in the factory, Hiyam refuses to defend herself against accusations of sinning and is ostracised. For the role, the actress Raeis did something that surprised both the film director and the local audiences by cutting her long hair to show her character’s downward trajectory in the movie. She told The National newspaper in the UAE, she wanted to play it real.
Seventy-one-year-old Khan, a Pakistani-Egyptian born in Cairo, belongs to the generation of Egyptian neorealist filmmakers. For a decade he has been trying to obtain Egyptian citizenship for himself, despite laws that prevent children of foreign national fathers from inheriting the status. Earlier this year he was finally awarded it by Interim President Adli Mansour. Three of Khan’s films – El-Harreef (The Street Player, 1984), Zawgat Ragol Mohem (The Wife of an Important Man, 1987) and Ahlam Hind wa Camilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia, 1988) – have been included in the list ‘100 Greatest Arab Films of All Time’ published in Cinema of Passion, the first Arabic-English book published on Middle Eastern cinema. Factory Girl won two awards at the now ten-year-old Dubai International Film Festival.
– Malu Halasa
London-based journalist writer and editor Malu Halasa is our writer-in-residence. Keep your eyes peeled for her posts in the run-up and during the festival.
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