Given Mohamed Khan’s long track record as a helmer with “new realist” credentials and a history of female-centric pics, it was expected that “Factory Girl” would fit the same mold. Unfortunately, although he and wife/scripter Wessam Suleiman probably mean to convey a femme-power message, this tale of a sweatshop seamstress accused of losing her virginity largely reinforces rigid patriarchal assumptions, and does so in standard Egyptian meller style. Lead thesp Yasmin Raeis deserved her best-actress win in Dubai, and “Factory Girl” is likely to play strongly in the region, yet few international fests will jump on the bandwagon.
More was certainly expected from Khan. Rather than using melodrama in a Sirkian way to comment on gender disparities and class hierarchies, he plays it straight, in the manner of hundreds of Egyptian films where emotions are writ larger than life, and subtext is either overwhelmed or nonexistent. Like many young women of the working classes, headscarf-wearing Hayam (Raies) slaves away at a sewing machine in a Cairo textile factory. She and her colleagues swoon when the less-than-swoonable Salah (Hany Adel, colorless) takes over as foreman; there’s an especially embarrassing scene at a beach outing, when the women behave like prepubescent teens at a Justin Bieber event.
Hayam comes from a strongly matriarchal household: She has a stepfather but he’s barely in the picture, and her mom (Salwa Khattab) is the biggest personality around. Also on hand is Hayam’s aunt Samra (Salwa Mohammad Ali), a divorcee whose unmarried status makes her a target for all sorts of come-ons while also placing her in a suspect position with other women.
Salah’s superior station in life makes him an unattainable fantasy for Hayam’s co-workers, but she lays siege, insinuating herself in his home when he’s forced to take sick leave. Salah enjoys the attention, a kiss results, and then a positive pregnancy test discovered in the garbage at work is presumed to be Hayam’s. No one thinks twice, including her mother and best friend: Hayam must be the fallen woman.
On paper, it sounds like a great opportunity to comment on presumptions of innocence, double standards of virginity (upended in Khan’s “Downtown Girls”), and the limited avenues available to women accused of moral offenses. Instead, apart from a contrived finale whose message, at least, is liberating, “Factory Girl” reinforces a harsh moral code by which a woman’s purity is her most important asset and its loss out of wedlock the ultimate sin.
In an interesting twist, Hayam refuses to address the accusations, expecting those nearest and dearest to recognize her unblemished character and dismiss the charges. This rebuff could have been developed in a way that strengthened the character’s sense of pride, yet instead she continues to humiliate herself before a scornful Salah and never questions whether this emphasis on her virginity contributes to her limited options as a woman. Some may say it would be too bold a statement in today’s increasingly conservative Egypt (in contrast with most of Khan’s previous films, nearly every woman here wears a hijab), though the point is debatable.
Besides the marked presence of the headscarf, accurately reflecting both the characters’ class and the nation’s shift toward a more demonstrable brand of Islam, the film also moves away from earlier Khan pics such as “Dreams of Hind and Camelia,” in which female solidarity formed a front against societal pressures. Here the women are quick to ostracize: Had Samra’s role been more developed, she could have provided her niece with the strength to withstand the accusations. It’s possible Khan and Suleiman mean to address these issues, yet the script is too weak and recycled to make critical comments on Egypt’s changing social landscape.
Performances are largely over-the-top, with far too many lines delivered in near hysterical voices; the style regrettably elides with Western stereotypes of Egyptian melodramas. Khan’s certainly aware of this throwback, and he’s included several scenes with people watching old romantic musicals on TV, apparently out of a nostalgic longing for a past which, onscreen at least, played with gender and class tropes more freely than seen here. Prominent lenser Mahmoud Lotfi (“Coming Forth by Day”) sheds his indie aesthetic for standard, overlit scenes indistinguishable from those in countless other sudsers.