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Looking for Oum Kulthum (Auf der Suche nach Oum Kulthum) - Rounding up the Usual Suspects
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Looking for Oum Kulthum (Auf der Suche nach Oum Kulthum)
SIFF's capsule summary: "The parallels between an Iranian filmmaker and her subject, the legendary Egyptian diva, Oum Kulthum, both of whom struggle to achieve their artistic visions in male-dominated societies are explored through a unique film within a film structure by visual artist Shirin Neshat.
    '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.' Vittoria Scarpa — Cineuropa" (Germany, 2017, 90 minutes)
SIFF link: Looking for Oum Kulthum

Mitra (Neda Rahmanian) is the Iranian director of a film about about Oum Kulthum (Nour Kamar young, Najia Skalli old), who was the most famous Arabic-language singer in history. Mitra speaks Persian, not Arabic, and lots of people involved in the production insist that no one can understand Oum Kulthum without understanding Arabic. Among them is the leading man in her film, who also believes that women are not fit to be film directors.

Mitra stays strong and finishes much of the film. Then a family crisis forces her to take leave, temporarily delegating the film to her assistant. When she returns, she has a new inspiration that practically everyone on the film questions.

8 Very Good Going into the film, I knew nothing about Oum Kulthum except that she was a real person and an amazing singer. Based on the film within the film, I got the impression that she was a complicated person, and surmised that the film within a film storytelling mechanism was a way to acknowledge that there was no way to tell the story of Oum Kulthum without controversy, so the film instead embraced the contrary.

In discussions after the film, and some research about the film, I discovered that Mitra, the fictional director of the film-within-a-film, represented some experiences that the film's actual director, Shirin Neshat ("in collaboration with" Shoja Azari, her partner.) Neshat is an Iranian-born visual artist who put her career on hold for years because of the discrimination she faced for being a woman. (But the film's Mitra lived in Germany; Mitra lives in New York.) Neshat is quite famous in the art world, and has become well-regarded as a film director too.

Before the homework about the director, my impression of the movie was that the outer story was a somewhat confusing drama about a film director out of her cultural element. (The story is credited to Azari, Neshat, and "collaborating writer" Ahmad Diba.) Normally, finding a story that confusing would make it hard for me to appreciate the film as a whole. But in this case, the film was such a visual and masterpiece that I really appreciated it in spite of only barely understanding it. The music was outstanding. And every shot in the picture was a work of art in composition, lighting, camera movement, and production design – also outstanding. A film that looks and sounds this wonderful doesn't need much in the way of story.

After I did some homework about the director, I appreciated the story more. Besides the film being a story about Oum Kulthum with some allusions to controversy over her life, it was also a story about some elements of the film's real-life director. That raised my rating of the story, but my admiration for the film is still mainly based on the music and visual wonders, so it wasn't a big boost my overall rating of the film.

Overall, I rate the film very good, on the basis of outstanding music and production, an almost good script (good if one has done homework on the film).

Languages: Arabic, Persian, German, with English subtitles, and English.

Rating: I don't think this film has a US rating (yet), but I'd guess it would rate a "PG-13", unless some language or other strong content slipped past my notice.

Screening: 10 am, Pacific Place (room 4).
Audience: a typical SIFF press screening crowd, around 100, about 285 seats (estimated capacity).

Snacks: none.

Ads and announcements: no ads at press screenings; SIFF volunteer "J" and Fool Serious ballot volunteer "J" provided announcements (two different people named "J").

Notes to myself:

SIFF statistics: 14 films (all features), 1 unofficial party.

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