We watched Factory Girl, directed by Mohamed Khan and written by Wessam Suleiman, with the intention of writing about it, which is a very good way to not enjoy a movie.
It’s easy to lose human feeling and sink into the temptation of judging, the sick euphoria of being expected to know what’s wrong, ready to catch uncomfortable camera movements, crappy makeup or soap-opera style lighting, especially with a director of Khan’s celebrity. Yet at some point it became impossible to continue watching Factory Girl as a movie. The characters, what their lives are like and what kinds of feelings they might be having, took over.
It’s not an edgy film that doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. It’s a film about the oldest story in history. It’s a classic Egyptian melodrama about Cinderella and Prince Charming.
The poor and beautiful heroine, played with perfect poise by Yasmine Raees, works at a Cairo clothing factory alongside various female employees, all, like her, unmarried. Salah, a new floor manager, arrives (played by pop star Hany Adel) and he’s tall, a little bit older, square-jawed and slightly posh. They all immediately discover that he is ring-less and fall in love with him, in a loud, collective, harassing way that divests him of the natural superiority he should enjoy as a man. But Hiyam in particular falls for him.
The factory organizes a trip to Ain Sokhna in a yellow school bus. There’s a hilarious scene in which Salah strips to his shorts on the beach as they watch, cheering joyfully from the shade before suddenly swarming toward him. He paddles around almost naked while the women splash around in brightly colored clothes, singing and clapping and admiring him. He seems to show interest in Hiyam and she proactively woos him. We get caught up in all of this, and then, like Hiyam, get genuinely confused when things start to go wrong. A rumor spreads out of control, everyone acts without thinking, and Hiyam is attacked from all sides.
Hiyam lives in a household of women and there are almost no men in the film. Her mother’s younger male partner is almost invisible, and her aunt’s younger suitor is a sleazy fool. The cast of young women mostly appear either working in the factory, eating their rubbish lunches quickly, or squeezing into public transport or bread queues, while the men are fighting, harassing, laying around doing nothing or complaining about sugar in their tea. The girls almost only talk about men. When talking about their futures they are talking about men, when talking about their pasts they are talking about men, and when talking about their miserable present they are also talking about men. They basically live a life in which men are the only way to survive, yet a constant bother and threat. The camera watches the women from above as they pinch and mock each other at the bottom of their world, preventing each other from looking up.
Even though the movie is mostly shot in poor areas of Cairo, it doesn’t seem to be fascinated by them or look at them with a touristic eye. No efforts were made to make things look more magical or more realistic. It’s as if the movie just moved out of the way and let things speak for themselves, the way they wanted.
Like Khan’s Hend and Camillia’s Dreams (1988) and Omar’s Journey (1986), Factory Girl deals with the brutal class system. But his first post-revolutionary movie also asks questions about Egypt’s post-revolutionary reality, partly through the role that he and Suleiman give to the late actress Souad Hosni.
The film is dedicated to Hosni. It features clips of her songs, and characters watch bits of her films, and the emotive final dance scene, which seems more like a dignified attempt to carry on with a brave face despite everything rather than a true celebration of any triumph on Hiyam’s part, is a clear nod in her direction. Factory Girl seems to be both a homage and a critique of those earlier films, for while they played more with gender roles and seemed more liberal, those hopeful qualities were ultimately hollow because they didn’t save Hosni from the clutches of the corrupt patriarchal society she lived in. Her life was blighted by the injustices she was put through by men, specifically the sinister figures of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
As evidenced in a rather off-the-mark Variety review, the film isn’t directed at a foreign audience. They mistake the Souad Hosni and Omm Kalthoum references for mere nostalgia, and would prefer the film to patronizingly tell its audience what to think, to attack more explicitly the notion that a woman’s virginity is the most important thing she has, and to show Egypt’s women rising up together in solidarity.
Instead, the film has a far more effective strategy, and is far more nuanced: it’s about reality, it lets people watch it and decide what they think for themselves.
By showing events as they actually happen rather than spelling out what should happen in an ideal world, the film shows reality in all its disgustingness. In the film, like in reality, women are often the first to accuse and attack each other. This is merely interspersed with occasions, especially toward the end, when women stand up for each other — we find the mother protecting her daughter with a knife, for example, and later creating a sort of healing ceremony for throwing hair that has been violently shorn off into the Nile. When Hiyam is having a showdown with Salah in Groppi, a women’s march goes through Talaat Harb in the background — the filmmakers give it an important presence but do not make much of it or sentimentalize it.
All this bare recognition of Egypt’s loud realities is what makes that final scene so powerful, whether you’re thinking of Souad Hosni or not. Even this strong and magical moment is painfully unsatisfying, as Hiyam and the movie pretend that she’ll walk out victorious and happy even though we all know that it’s not totally true.
Khan made the film with various sources of funding, cooperating with Mohamed Samir, a young producer (Khan has always said that Egyptian cinema was much better when there were younger and smaller producers who did not just care about revenue). The Egyptian Ministry of Culture eventually helped out financially, and grants from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the US and Germany helped the movie come to light so that Khan could fascinate us once again, at a time when feelings are getting a bit numb.
Factory Girl will be released in Egyptian cinemas on March 19. In Cairo, an English-subtitled copy of the film will be showing at Bandar Cinema in Maadi and City Stars in Heliopolis.