The Venice Film Festival Diaries: 'Looking for Oum Kulthum', 'Woodshock' and a 'Coda' That Isn't the End

09/04/2017 01:49 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2017
A still from Shirin Neshat’s ‘Looking for Oum Kulthum’ featuring Yasmin Raeis
Courtesy of Venice Days
A still from Shirin Neshat’s ‘Looking for Oum Kulthum’ featuring Yasmin Raeis

If you think that in order to feature strong women a film festival only has to pay attention to the male to female ratio of filmmakers in their Competition section, think again. At this year’s Venice Film Festival, powerful, interesting, revolutionary women roles, filmmakers and icons have been everywhere. You just have to know how to look. And maybe you won’t always find them in the director’s chair, which is alright by me. But in the case of the first two films I’ll talk about here, they happened to be both in front of and behind the camera.

Shirin Neshat’s 'Looking for Oum Kulthum'

Shirin Neshat is that most interesting kind of filmmakers, because the Iranian-born, US based artist is also a mother, and a true beauty. In person, Neshat glows, her signature kohl lined eyes sultrily peering back at me, from her perfectly shaped, tanned face framed by simple, pulled back hair. But to talk only of her feminine beauty would be to betray the wonderful film Neshat has brought to Venice, ‘Looking for Oum Kulthum’ which screened in the Venice Days sidebar.

For anyone who has ever been to or hails from the Arab world, singer Oum Kulthum is the kind of icon as recognizable there as Marilyn is to us in the West. But as a legend hailing from Egypt, she carries with her some of the problems of the Region, which begin with the epidermic way in which any and all depictions of her are viewed. In her film, Neshat touches upon these very problems, the kind of “she belongs to Egypt, we know her better than you” attitude that is familiar to anyone who has ever attempted to talk about anything iconic within the Arab world yet hails from foreign lands. On top of that, Neshat also delves into the unspoken territory of being a woman in the Middle East, especially a successful, strong and ambitious one. And the result is the kind of inventive work of art we have become used to and love from the filmmaker of ‘Women Without Men’ and ‘Zarin’ — which incidentally features a soundtrack composed by Japanese legend Ryuichi Sakamoto. But more on him a little later.

‘Woodshock’ by Laura and Kate Mulleavy

Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival

Alright film critics, enough with the silly reefer madness jokes, they make you sound like six year-olds — never attractive for grown men. So now that we got that order of business out of the way, this first filmmaking effort by the sister duo behind fashion label Rodarte, who also dressed Natalie Portman’s character in Darren Aronofsky‘s ’Black Swan’ has been a journey for me. A trippy journey filled with cool sequences, some awesome Kirsten Dunst acting — she can do no wrong by me — and even featuring a new discovery for yours truly, the sultry, magnetic Pilou Asbæk whose eyes remind me a bit of a younger Michael Shannon.

But sometimes a film gets even better once it ends, and you have time to think it over, find alternate endings and discover new meanings within it. There is that important save-the-California-Redwoods theme, the idea that dreams can sometimes become our reality and even an ending that left me thinking “did she, or didn’t she?” Was it real, or was everything after the death of Teresa’s mother just a weird hallucination, a dream? Ah, got you interested didn’t I?!

Meeting with the cast and filmmakers earlier this afternoon, on an elegant island away from the hustle and bustle of the festival also added to my experience and those twenty minutes in their company were illuminating in a way but also took me further down the rabbit hole that ‘Woodshock’ seems to be. So perhaps, as those wonderful Rodarte ladies reinvented fashion for a while when they first broke onto the NY scene in 2005, so they could be finding a new way to make cinema too. All we need to do to follow them on that voyage is believe in the magic of the movies.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda by Stephen Nomura Schible

Photo by ASAC - Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival

If you’ve lived under a rock and never came out to discover who Maestro Ryuichi Sakamoto is, then filmmaker Stephen Nomura Schible will provide you with all you need to know to become the latest, biggest fan of this legendary, beautiful artist. Sakamoto is so awe inspiring that I was left speechless in his presence, something which very seldom happens.

There is an outer elegance and palpable inner discipline to Sakamoto which Schible has captured wholeheartedly. It’s clear the Japanese born, NY based filmmaker is as fascinated by the Oscar winning composer as we are, and that’s a great thing. Somehow, with all that emotion and wonder he never gets in the way of his subject and manages to bring to the surface a passion and grace that we could have only imagined before. So, if you couldn’t tell already, I loved ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda’.

Throughout the film’s beginning I kept scribbling in my notebook “a coda is an ending, right?” yet the Maestro is still around, I thought... I knew I was interviewing him after viewing this documentary. And then my question was answered by a twist early on in the film, the moment in which Sakamoto is diagnosed with throat cancer, a segment so devoid of self-pity that it becomes almost poetic. Even the manner in which his food is arranged on plates and the way he swallows the dozens of pills he needs during his treatment are all so elegant.

I believe there is a lesson to be learned from Sakamoto, who declared during our interview, “I need a deadline because otherwise I’m a very lazy person.” That lesson is that although being lazy is human, having the discipline to transcend our need to be idle can help us deal in style with even the most difficult hurdles in our path.

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