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VENICE 2017 Giornate degli Autori

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Looking for Oum Kulthum: Being a female artist in the Middle East


- VENICE 2017: Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat directs a movie about the legendary Egyptian singer, a biopic that thinks outside the box, interweaving cinema and metacinema

Looking for Oum Kulthum: Being a female artist in the Middle East
Yasmin Raeis in Looking for Oum Kulthum

Having won the Silver Lion in 2009 with Women Without Men [+see also:
film review
film profile
, Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat is back at the Venice Film Festival, this time in the Giornate degli Autori, with her sophomore feature, Looking for Oum Kulthum [+see also:
interview: Shirin Neshat
film profile
, a biopic that thinks outside the box and shines the spotlight on a legend of Middle Eastern music, Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum. The sheer popularity of this artist, who was perhaps not so well known in the West, but whom President Nasser made no bones about describing as “the fourth pyramid of Egypt”, is plain to see soon enough when, at the start of the film, we see a parade of archive images from her funeral, which drew a vast crowd in 1975. But Neshat shies away from painting a traditional portrait of an extraordinary life, and instead makes the central pillar of her story a woman, her alter ego, who is reflected in this heroine in a never-ending game that seesaws between cinema and metacinema, and between reality and fiction.

Mitra (played by Iranian actress Neda Rahmanian) is a director who dreams of making a movie about Arab diva Oum Kulthum. Once the lead actress (Egypt’s Yasmin Raeis) has been found, principal photography gets under way, but she will soon have to contend with the prejudice of the men around her, who don’t think she is up to the task, and with her feelings of guilt about being an absent mother, because she is so wrapped up in her work. What price must a woman pay in order to follow her passions in such a chauvinist, conservative and frustrating society? This is what Mitra wonders, as she begins to be reflected ever more clearly in her heroine, in the sacrifices she makes in the name of success, and slowly but surely she starts sinking into a personal crisis that will change the outcome of her film.

Dreamlike visions, archive images and reconstructions of the most important moments in the history of Egypt (the revolution, the feminist marches, the end of the monarchy) are intertwined and mingle with the trials and tribulations of Mitra and her work on set. In this complex mesh of cross-references and connections, the musical moments really come to the fore, in particular the two concerts given by the monumental singer in honour of King Farouk, first of all, and later of President Nasser, in front of the ecstatic faces of her fans, who admire and sing along with her. The movie immerses us in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, and in its traditions, at a time when the Middle East showed its more open-minded and cosmopolitan side – but above all, it is a subtle portrait of the person behind the icon, a legend who was first and foremost a woman, and proved a role model for so many Arab females who are fighting to assert themselves.   

Looking for Oum Kulthum is a production between Germany (Razor Film Produktion), Austria (Coop99 Filmproduktion) and Italy (In Between Art FilmVivo Film), together with Lebanon and Qatar. The international sales are handled by German company The Match Factory.

(Translated from Italian)

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