LOOKING FOR OUM KULTHUM

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by Shirin Neshat

grade: 5.5

In Looking for Oum Kulthum, Shirin Neshat loses herself in her reflections, focuses on the protagonist’s inner torments and almost forgets to give Oum Kulthum’s character the deserved attention. At the 74th Venice Film Festival – section Giornate degli Autori.

The voice, the legend

Oum Kulthum. The greatest Egyptian singer of all time, considered throughout the Middle Eastern world almost as a myth. Shirin Neshat. Iranian director, photographer and video artist awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director in 2009 for Women without Men. Two women who, by meeting (in film, of course), could give us many beautiful surprises. And it is precisely thanks to Shirin Neshat that the great Oum Kulthum could once again come to life on the big screen in the feature film Looking for Oum Kulthum, which premiered in 2017 at the 74th Venice Film Festival as part of the section Giornate degli Autori.

“Is this true fame?” The discourse is actually much more complex than it may initially seem. In fact, the director has not simply staged a biopic dedicated to the singer. Shirin Neshat wanted to make a feature film that was stylistically much more complex than one would have initially expected. And, of course, this gave rise to quite a few problems.

Director Mitra (played by Neda Rahmanian) wants to make a film about the life of Oum Kulthum. To this end, she is constantly looking for an actress who can best impersonate her. During an audition, therefore, she chooses a young woman who is taking part in a film for the first time. It is up to her to bring the famous singer to life. Excerpts from Oum Kulthum’s life alternate with moments from the daily life of director Mitra herself, her inner torments, her doubts and her reflections on her work and her status as a woman in a society that is still too chauvinistic.

Looking for Oum Kulthum immediately becomes a film in the film. Mitra is almost the alter ego of Shirin Neshat. And, at the same time, the typical themes of the Iranian director’s cinema – among which, precisely, the conditions of women, freedom of expression and a still too narrow-minded society – also become the main actors. An undoubtedly interesting operation, which, however, did not bring the expected results. Shirin Neshat, in fact, loses herself in her reflections, focuses on the inner torments of the protagonist and almost forgets the character of Oum Kulthum – whose events have been voluntarily rewritten here by Mitra herself.

Neshat is undoubtedly talented, although she sometimes opts for an overly marked aesthetic. And in Looking for Oum Kulthum she stood out for an undoubtedly elegant and not too excessive directorial approach, in which dreamlike scenes, fiction and reality alternate in an overall balanced way. Yet, when one wants to go over the top, the risk of losing one’s way is always very high. And in this case, the filmmaker has made a potentially interesting yet inevitably self-referential feature film. Everything is said, but in reality nothing. The great Oum Kulthum unfortunately does not come to life on screen. Shirin Neshat speaks almost only of herself and in wanting to emulate Federico Fellini and François Truffaut at all costs has staged a film devoid of substance with an elegant ‘package’, but which will inevitably be forgotten within a few years. What a pity.

Original title: Looking for Oum Kulthum
Directed by: Shirin Neshat
Country/year: Germany, Austria, Italy, Morocco, Qatar, Lebanon, France / 2017
Running time: 90’
Genre: biographical, drama
Cast: Neda Rahmanian, Yasmin Raeis, Mehdi Moinzadeh, Kais Nashif, Loudili Ahmed, Bandar Atifi
Screenplay: Shoja Azari, Ahmad Diba, Shirin Neshat
Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht
Produced by: Agora Films, Coop99 Filmproduktion, Doha Film Institute, FISA, In Between Art Film, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Noirmontartproduction, Razor Film Produktion, Regione Lazio, Schortcut Films, Vienna Film FInancing Fund, Vivo Film, ORF, Österreichisches Filminstitut

Info: the website of Looking for Oum Kulthum; the page of Looking for Oum Kulthum on iMDb; the page of Looking for Oum Kulthum on the website of the Coop99 Filmproduktion