Egyptian Cinematic Charmer, Too 'Lowbrow' for Israeli Tastes

Mohamed Khan is one of Egypt’s most loved filmmakers, although many Israeli viewers have failed to recognize the quality of his work.

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The second Safar Arab film festival returned to London last Friday, with two of the festival’s most intriguing films being by a father and daughter. Nadine Khan represents a new generation of young, inspiration-filled filmmakers in Egyptian film with her award-winning debut feature, “Chaos, Disorder.”

Her father, meanwhile, is Mohamed Khan, one of Egypt’s most important directors over the past 30 years. He presented his most recent film, “Factory Girl,” which has been praised by both critics and audiences in the Arab world.

The premiere of “Factory Girl” at the Dubai film festival in March packed the halls. Crowds came to see the latest movie from one of the legends of Egyptian cinema.

It was Khan’s first movie for seven years, since “In the Heliopolis Flat” (2007), and it seems most viewers were not disappointed. The Dubai audience loved the movie, while actress Yasmin Raeis in the title role won the Best Actress Award at the festival and filled Egyptian theaters.

Khan’s wife, Wessam Soliman, wrote the script after spending a few months working anonymously in a textile factory. She traveled to work on public transportation so as to understand the life of the main character.

The film’s plot tells the story of Hiyam, a 21-year-old factory worker who lives in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, along with her coworkers. But unlike her friends, Hiyam is not willing to accept the norms and limitations imposed on her because she is a woman and because of her class.

She is clearly under the spell of Salah, the factory’s new supervisor (played by Hani Adel), who has expressed his admiration for her. She believes love can transcend the class differences between them. However, when a pregnancy test ing kit is discovered in the factory premises and rumors spread, Hiyam’s immediate family and close friends accuse her of sinning. Hiyam is sure that she and Salah will get married, but he goes off on his own, denies any responsibility and, in the end, marries someone else from the class deemed appropriate for a manager such as himself.

Hiyam decides not to defend herself and pays an enormous price in a society that fails to accept independent women. “Factory Girl” examines the changes that take place in her life over the four seasons. From falling in love to facing heartbreak, her life turns full circle by the end of the year.

Mohamed Khan's 'Factory Girl.' Photo by Courtesy

On the surface, this would appear to be just another worn-out, banal story that repeats itself hundreds and thousands of times in different works.

But Khan’s film cannot be dismissed so easily. His uniqueness as a director is in preserving the aesthetics of the cinema while still maintaining his own personal touch – and at the same time making the film accessible to the general public.

When comparing him to Youssef Chahine – arguably the best-known and most admired Egyptian film director – Khan’s films speak more generally to the hearts of the Egyptian people.

Chahine is a source of pride for the Egyptian people because of his international recognition and for putting Egypt on the world cinema map. But many of his movies do not speak to Egyptian audiences, and he himself has said, “If the Arab world loves my films, they are welcome. If foreign audiences love them, they are doubly welcome.”

Mohamed Khan's 'Factory Girl.' Photo by Courtesy

But for Khan, it seems, it is very important to speak to the Egyptian people, and he is not afraid of using popular styles. In almost all his films, he makes use of Egyptian popular culture – whether it is integrating clips of old and classic Egyptian films, or when he uses the soundtrack to reference popular plays, or in the tributes to well-known and well-loved singers such as Abdel Halim Hafez or the Jewish-Egyptian singer Leila Mourad.

Even though he was born in Egypt in 1942 – to an Egyptian mother of Italian origin – and lived most of his life in Egypt, Khan only received Egyptian citizenship a few months ago, because his father was British-Pakistani.

Khan started directing short films in the late 1970s, and in 1978 directed his first full-length feature, “Dharbet Shams” (Sun Stroke). Since then he has directed over 20 films. He belongs to a generation of directors – which includes such important Egyptian directors as Atef al-Tayeb, Khairy Beshara and Daoud Abdel Sayed – whose movies focus on the daily life of a simple man, on his distress and disappointments, and on social and political criticism. These directors shunned shooting in studios in favor of filming on location, in most cases in poor neighborhoods or isolated villages that the state tended to neglect.

Khan and his work should be recognizable to quite a few Israelis. A large number of his films were shown here on Channel 1 as part of the TV programing slot known as “The Friday Arab Film.” From the late 1960s until the 1980s, watching the Arab film became a weekly ritual that spanned all the ethnic groups, religions and communities. But this phenomenon, no matter how widespread it was then, has now become the stuff of myth. Arab films may have enjoyed a high rating, but they also drew a lot of ridicule. No one in Israel thought of Arab film as “proper cinema.” Up until a few years ago, it was also impossible to study Egyptian cinema in the various film schools here – even though it is one of the largest film industries in the world.

Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. Photo by Reuters

Many of the Egyptian films broadcast in Israel were what critics and others with “good taste” would have called “low quality.” The Egyptian film industry is, first and foremost, a commercial business, and that is how it supports itself. But the average Israeli eye did not distinguish between the various levels of quality of the films on show.

A low-budget film from an unknown and inexperienced director – which may not have succeeded in Egyptian movie theaters, either – was considered no differently to an exceptional one made by a daring director that won international awards. This was especially the case with Khan, who tended to cloak his social and political criticism in romantic and melodramatic social dramas that were easy on the eye.

This was particularly true with two of his finest works: “The Wife of an Important Man” (1987), one of the most critical films ever made in Egypt, in the guise of a drama-romance between a couple whose relationship hits the rocks and which symbolizes the relations between Egypt and military rule; and also in “Dreams of Hind and Camilia” (1989), which is considered one of the most feminist films ever made in Egyptian cinema, making the role of the man superfluous as two women flee together to raise one of their daughters.

Not everyone agrees about the feminism in Khan’s “Factory Girl.” Some claim that this film features his largest number of women in hijabs, and that Hiyam is not really breaking conventions. Others though, including quite a number of women, see the film as a breakthrough in terms of being a model for Egyptian women, especially as it works through the accepted frameworks of society.

Hiyam does pay a price: She is abandoned by her love, goes to his wedding, takes off her hijab, her hair has been cut short and she dances with enjoyment in front of her shocked friends – all of whom are still wearing hijabs on their heads – while she looks straight into the camera, without fear.

Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema is hosted by the Arab British Center, in conjunction with the Dubai Film Festival, and runs until Thursday at the ICA in London.

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