Fatat el Masna (Factory Girl) by Mohamed Khan depicts a misunderstood segment of society: female Muslim factory workers in Egypt. The contemporary setting of the story allows the viewer to make real-life comparisons with their own notions of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and power. Social stratification is a core theme, but gender is a far more salient one in Khan's movie. Fatat el Masna is about individual women taking personal risks to alter gender norms. Yet ironically, Hiyam (Yasmin Raeis) operates within a stereotypically chauvinistic framework. She fantasizes about her boss in ways that are the antithesis of female self-empowerment, as if the film suggests that women in Egyptian society can only liberate themselves in their own minds. Their actual liberation remains a pipe dream. Seeds of hope are planted, however, as Hiyam remains true to her word and values. She does fall in love with her boss and therefore perpetuates sexist stereotypes, yet Hiyam also subverts gender norms and roles. Fatat el Masna therefore encapsulates the conflicting, complex, and contradictory nature of gender roles and norms in contemporary Egyptian society.
Mohamed Khan and screenwriter Wessam Soliman reveal to outsiders the world of working class Egyptian women in ways rarely seen on the big screen. Nothing is romanticized in Fatat el Masna but nothing is overly melodramatic, either. The factory workers are not dirt poor; they have jobs and are not wanting of much more than freedom. They are aware of the constraints placed upon them due to gender and especially power and class, and in the case of Hiyam anyway, they are interested in and willing to overcome those constraints. The filmmakers, a husband-and-wife team comprised of Khan and Soliman, want viewers to see that Egyptian society is far from being monolithic and that many Egyptians of all rungs of society are interested in deep social change and justice. This is especially true of educated Egyptians in the diaspora like khan and Soliman, but also of the types of women depicted in their film Fatat el Masna about factory girls.
The common perception of factory girls is that they are uneducated and therefore utterly disenfranchised. Khan and Soliman dispel this myth, showing that factory girls are equally as willing and able of perceiving injustice and taking risks to overcome it in their own lives. Hiyam and her colleagues have not completely given up hope. They are young and idealistic. Hiyam is especially unrealistic in her expectations of being rescued from her situation, which is the only problematic thread in the film. Had the filmmakers depicted Hiyam as falling in love with a female colleague, or with a male in her own social class, the dynamic of the film would have been different. As it is, a chivalrous element detracts from the deeper issues, and ends up making light of what is indeed a very serious situation.
Factory girls are not in a position of power and are not going to be able to make significant impact on their society. That much is clear, and Khan does not imply otherwise. The film shows that small steps, baby steps, are the only means by which women can overcome entrenched patriarchal values. Women are the only main characters in this film other than Salah (Hany Adel). The film is remarkable in the sense that it offers a feminist window into Egyptian society, and shows that women can often be their own worst enemies. Women accuse Hiyam of being promiscuous, and of breaking with tradition. Hiyam struggles against a patriarchal social structure so intense and entrenched that her own mother fails to support her in her time of need. Hiyam is a hero because she stands up for her principles, even more than standing up for herself. Her reputation is less important than her ability to do something about a sexist society. Unfortunately, it takes subsuming her own power to a man to do so.
Khan's use of mis-en-scene and other cinematographic techniques conveys his central vision of the ambivalence of feminist empowerment in Egypt. Much of Fatat el Masna takes place in the mind of Hiyam, who is frequently featured in close-ups and full-frame shots. In one shot, Hiyam looks up dreamily into the camera, as she fantasizes about her boss. Erotic fantasies play themselves out metaphorically and literally using allusions to old cinema. Hiyam watches an old movie in black and white on a television, underscoring the theme of nostalgia. Scenes of Hiyam going to and from work depict the protagonist in her everyday life: the working class buildings and tenements in Cairo; the factory floor. Hiyam peers through a window in one scene, clearly symbolizing the fact that she stands on the outside looking in. Yet there is always a look of hope and empowerment on Hiyam's face. When the audience sees Salah, it is always through the eyes of Hiyam. Khan is adept at allowing the audience insight into Hiyam's psyche and inner world, and mis-en-scene is the primary means by which this illusion is achieved. For example, in one scene, Hiyam and Salah run into each other in a stairwell in the factory. It is Hiyam's face that occupies the attention of the director, and the camera devotes itself to her and not him. Group scenes of the factory offer a visual and conceptual overview of the daily social lives of working class Egyptian women, with their collective fears and needs. The filmmaker re-creates the complex world of the factory women, showing their use of gossip, socialization, norming, and other sociological mechanisms. Hiyam remains the only character the viewer gets to know in any depth, and it is because of the directors determination to feature Hiyam's psychological makeup on screen that this is possible.
2. Born into Brothels
The children of prostitutes are not typical subjects for a documentary, which is why Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's documentary won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005. The film depicts the children of prostitutes in Calcutta (now spelled Kolkata), which adds extra layers of depth related to the entrenched class stratification system, gendered identities, and ethnicities. Briski and Kauffman also earned accolades, or at least attention, by engaging their subjects in a most unique manner: by placing the camera in their hands. Empowering the children in this way allows for a nuanced and personal perspective. The filmmakers also allow for a unique ethnography, in which participants and not observers determine the core content of the documentary. Although there is editorial discretion ultimately in the piecing together of Born into Brothels, the film gives a voice to a cohort of people not typically offered one. The filmmakers are also activists, in that they offer the children access to Western education and an opportunity to extricate themselves from their situation. Some seize the opportunity, whereas others do not.
In 2002, several years prior to the release of Born into Brothels, French filmmaker Nicolas Philbert covered the realities of rural schooling in France with the feature-length documentary To Be and to Have. Depicting the small community with impressionistic detail, Philbert shows viewers the possibilities of early childhood education outside of the trappings of urban life. The teacher at the heart of the documentary is Georges Lopez, who is shown to be a holistic and compassionate instructor helping his students discover multiple methods of learning and interacting with their environment. Because the environment is a rural region, the children are frequently shown out of doors. They do learn traditional subjects, but social learning and enculturation are also important aspects of a child's education.
As filmmaking is concerned, Born into Brothels and To Be and to Have could not be any more different. They are both about children, and they are both documentaries. Both films impart a hopeful message about the innocence and potentiality of children. Both filmmakers utilize the camera and construct mis-en-scene in ways that are evocative and creative, rather than providing a dry documentary using techniques like interviewing. There are impressionistic and almost abstract dimensions to both films, via their use of music as well as composition and editing.
However, that is the extent of their similarities. These two films diverge on almost every other aspect. To Be and to Have is about a rural region of France; whereas Born into Brothels is about an urban enclave in India. Born into Brothels is designed to inspire political action and change; whereas To Be and to Have offers more of an artistic snapshot into a way of life that is slowly fading from consciousness in the modern Western world. As Briski and Kauffman point out at the onset of Born into Brothels, it is difficult to film in the red light district because what goes on there is actually illegal and people are afraid. In rural France, there was some reluctance in opening the community to the filmmaker but resistance was not felt to the same degree as it might have been in India.