DUBAI: When your country’s been racked by political turmoil, simmering security unrest and looming economic disaster for over two years, the cheapest way to escape is to watch an old movie. It’s useful to keep this facet of popular cinema in mind when scrutinizing “The Factory Girl,” the new feature of veteran Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Khan. The movie had its world premiere at a gala screening at the Dubai International Film Festival Sunday evening, where it is competing in the Muhr Arab Feature category.
The audience, which included a generous helping of Egyptian nationals, received the film warmly. Some, however, left “The Factory Girl” shaking their heads in bewilderment.
Khan is recalled with fondness for having been among the filmmakers to establish a socially engaged realism as an alternative to the saccharine musical melodrama dominating the country’s cinema in the 1980s. Naturally, many were curious to see what the director’s first film since 2007 would contribute to Egypt’s current postrevolutionary cultural discourse. In “The Factory Girl,” they will find socially informed melodrama, leavened by comedy and a didactic form of nostalgia.
“The Factory Girl” commences near the end of a workday at an all-female textile-manufacturing workshop in inner-city Cairo. Black-clad conservative Muslims are a minority here, though all crew members keep their hair covered, including a pretty 21-year-old named Hiyam (Yasmeen Raess).
Like her workplace, Hiyam’s home life is very woman-centered. She lives with her mother (Salwa Khattab) and sister, the latter being the issue of another marriage, and their menacing grandmother. Hiyam’s divorced aunt (Salwa Mohamed Ali) and daughter are also part of an extended family that effectively includes the entire quarter: Neighborhood legend has it that, thanks to an incident involving a lovelorn she-jinn a generation or two back, mothers here are “cursed” to give birth only to girls.
The older women’s relationships with the younger men in their lives – both Hiyam’s stepfather and her aunt’s co-worker and suitor – delineate the colorful culture of strong women and provide her role models.
When the factory’s anonymous owners hire a brooding young man named Salah (pop star Hani Adel) as the new bash muhandis, floor manager, the entire staff is atwitter because he appears to be unmarried.
Hiyam is particularly smitten, though Salah gives her little reason to think that he notices her. During a (apparently regularly scheduled) beach outing for factory staff, the young man falls ill with appendicitis, and Hiyam seizes the opportunity to make herself useful. She goes to the hospital to ensure Salah is well fed and continues her ministrations after he returns home to his mother’s bourgeois flat.
Salah’s mum tries unsuccessfully to pay Hiyam for her labors, apparently to keep her at arm’s length. Naturally it’s impossible for Salah to ignore the young woman’s charms, and the stage is set for plot complication.
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.
Khan and scriptwriter Wessam Soliman are aware of this heritage of course and work with it very deliberately here. “The Factory Girl” repeatedly references Egypt’s pre-Nasser-era cinema heritage, just as it does the passionate music of that era, not least that of Umm Kalthoum.
These references are nostalgic but also didactic. A scene from one classic Egyptian movie – in which a young woman kisses a (bourgeois) young man on the mouth to remind him of a promise he’s made – is a pointed reminder of the more elastic moral code that used to operate in Egyptian cinema.
When one evening Hiyam’s mother opens her trousseau so her daughters and niece can try on her wedding dresses, one of the girls is aghast at how revealing one of them is. “Those were different days,” the mother shrugs, nodding to how the world depicted in Egypt’s cinema has tended to reflect the society that informed it.
Since the prevailing cultural mores are stricter and more religiously coded now than they were in the heyday of Egyptian modernism, the rich-boy-meets-poor-girl narrative that Khan and Soliman deploy here is also an unhappy variation of the model that used to constitute comedy.
It has been argued that the conventions of Egypt’s modernist cinema were formed, at least in part, because of filmmakers seeing themselves as part of the nationalist project. Stories were heavy with exposition and elaborately plotted in order to absorb, and perhaps instruct, popular audiences. Song and dance and heart-throttling melodrama were similarly useful – just as they have been in the popular cinema of Bollywood.
For a younger generation of Egyptian filmmakers and hip audiences reared on a diet of taciturn, emotionally aloof art house fare – and, for that matter, the critics who assess films according to these criteria – Egypt’s modernist cinema conventions are not simply antique and alien. They contradict the very definition of good cinema. (In this regard, it’s instructive to contrast the aesthetic of “The Factory Girl” with that of Leila Kilani’s superb 2011 feature “Sur la Planche,” which also happens to be about young women employed in a factory, in this case a fish processing plant in Morocco’s free zone.)
Khan did not make “The Factory Girl” for Western critics. If it resolutely works with the conventions of Egypt’s popular cinema practices, the effect is to contrast the trajectory of contemporary cultural mores with the ideology of social integration that the national cinema formerly breathed into its audiences’ imaginations. “The Factory Girl” is not about Egyptian’s latest revolution, but it does ask a few questions about where the country is right now.
“The Factory Girl” will screen again Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. DIFF continues until Dec. 14. For more information, see dubaifilmfest.com.