Director Mohamed Khan is finally Egyptian. A virtual one-man institution in the Egyptian film industry with a filmography running at over thirty-five movies, he’s one of the country’s most renowned and prolific directors. But being born to an Egyptian mother and Pakistani father, the Egyptian nationality eluded him until two months ago, when his citizenship was granted. It seems long overdue considering that the body of Khan’s work lays bare the soul of Egypt like no-one else’s, explores it complexities and holds up an ultimately humanistic mirror to its shadows as well as its light. Khan loves movies, and describes himself as an avid film buff before anything else. After studying at the London Film School he began his career back in Egypt in the 1960’s as a script writer, going on to make his name with a string of acclaimed releases in the 1980’s and beyond. Lauded and acknowledged by both local and international audiences, Khan is the recipient of numerous awards for his work, including two at the Dubai International Film Festival for his latest, Factory Girl. He is also a true independent spirit in the business, producing neo-realist cinema with movies that range from ‘big’ subjects (Ayam el Sadat) to small projects without star actors. Social issues, in particular those revolving around the lives of women, have been at the heart of many of his films, and Factory Girl is no exception. Cairo West Magazine went to find out more.
CWM: How did the idea for Factory Girl come about?
I wanted to make a film about a poor girl working in a factory; a feminist film that shows, without philosophizing, the obstacles facing so many girls in our society. The story touches upon a lot of issues, such as why many young girls work to support their entire families, and also the class barriers that prevent love between different social classes. To prepare for the film, the script-writer Wessam Soliman (who is also my wife) went incognito to work in a clothing factory for ten days. That was the springboard; it then took two years to write and develop the script, plus one year to shoot it.
I insisted on shooting the film on location in a shaabi neighbourhood. I always function better in real places; in a studio I never believe in the reality of it. But just because it is shot in a poor neighbourhood, it’s not sombre. Just like when I shot Dreams of Hind and Camelia, I wanted to show that this setting can be colourful and full of life. Being poor doesn’t mean being miserable.
Who was involved in casting and how were the actors selected?
My casting director was Jennifer Patterson, an American married to an Egyptian who lives in Kitkat – so she’s quite familiar with Egyptian life! Yasmine Raiss, who played the part of the main character Hiyam, originally came to a general casting after we’d chosen another actress for the role, who then turned out to have other commitments, so Yasmine replaced her. It was just her good luck!
The film has received a lot of accolades. What do you think has contributed to its success?
It’s amazing to me that the film has been so well received. I’ve been going around the cinemas where it’s on and watching people come out happy and satisfied – I don’t remember ever having quite this experience before! It’s been shown all over the Arab region, which is always surprising for a film with no stars in it. It’s my first time to work with this distribution company, Mad Solutions, and the first time that they have ever distributed a film – so they’ve really done a great job.
I think the film touches people. I dedicated it to Souad Hosni, who was a close friend and someone who, I think, is somehow in the fibre of all young Egyptian women –even Arab girls. She represents their free, rebellious spirit, and this is something that’s at the heart of this story. Back in 1982 she starred in my movie Dinner Date, and I remember after the first screening in the mornings, women would be coming out of the cinemas with their daughters, the rollers still in their hair.
The audience for Factory Girl has been a mainly female one, and since the female population in Egypt is apparently greater than the male, that’s fine by me! I also feel that the film was made with a lot of love, and this shows on screen. So many people were involved in wanting to make it happen, giving their time and energy for little financial reward. There was a great chemistry on the set.
What are the most important factors when choosing a script?
What interests me are stories about people, and how they live. I’m not the kind of director who makes others peoples’ scripts. Everything I do begins with an idea that’s come to me personally, and I’m always thinking about new scenarios. I’m a workaholic. People imagine that when I’m not actually making a movie I’m having time off, but that’s never true. I am more likely concentrating on a new project that might never come to the screen; in my recent five year hiatus I was actually working on three scripts, none of which I could get made.
How difficult is it to get independent funding for films these days?
Making Factory Girl involved a completely new idea for me in terms of funding. The project won a funding grant from the Ministry of Culture, but that wasn’t enough to cover it, so I and the producer went everywhere to make up the extra, pitching to numerous organizations in different countries to pull it together, including Greece and Dubai. We also made many sacrifices; my wife and I took no salary and made no money until the film was released.
I was lucky enough to come from a generation who came through the mainstream system and were still able to make the films we wanted to. Over the last ten years a monopoly has developed in which distributors think they know what’s best for the cinema audience, and basically cater for films providing sensuality, vulgarity and violence. The policy is ‘make and collect’; profit is the main object. However, the era of digital film making has turned the industry upside now, and it is now possible to make movies for less. That alone has breathed new life into independent cinema and allowed new talent to come in. I was one of the first directors to use digital media and recognize its potential. Of course the monopoly still controls most of the distribution outlets, but there is hope there also, for example Marianne Khoury has a new project at the Odeon Cinema Downtown screening independent movies, both local and from abroad.
What do you have in the pipeline now?
My new project is a movie called Before the Summer Crowd, which takes place in a resort – probably in the Sinai – out of season. As a contrast to Factory Girl, this one revolves around a group of upper middle-class adults and is what I’d call a sexual movie without much sex. The idea came to me after my wife and I were staying in a resort off-season and the only other people were in a neighbouring chalet. The residents of this chalet and their activities were the inspiration! The writer this time is Ghada Shahabandar, who actually works in human rights but I felt was familiar enough with the world I’m portraying to do a good job on the script – even though it’s her first time to write one.
What’s your biggest regret?
That my father died before he got to see any of my films. He used to like going to the cinema, mainly because he enjoyed sitting in the air-conditioning!
What makes you happiest?
That my children are both standing on their own two feet and doing well. My son Hassan Khan is a well-established artist, and my daughter Nadine is now a film director in her own right.
Most recently viewed film?
I see a film every day! I’ve never stopped being an avid film buff. Yesterday I watched Nymphomaniac, a new film by Danish director Larss Von Tier that recently showed at the Berlin Film Festival.
What are you reading right now?
I don’t have a lot of time for reading, but I recently read Blue, a series of short stories by Mahmoud Tawfik.
Your favourite food?
Being the son of a part-Italian mother, it has to be pasta. But with the right sauce!
What’s your preferred style of dress?
Definitely casual, and I can tell you a story about that. I am so known for my informal dress style that once when I was accepting an award from Hosni Mubarak, the Minister of Information himself called me on the phone and said, “Don’t forget to put on a tie.”!
What can’t you live without?
Films. My film library is all indexed and numbered. I tell myself when I’m old and senile I’ll start watching them all again beginning at number one.
Seeing someone belittle a poor person.
What’s your worst habit?
At the moment it’s smoking. I stopped five years ago but I’ve taken it up again.
Your favourite place to travel to?
London – I miss it!