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With only one film by a female director and none from the Arab world making it to the main line-up, we question the diversity of this year’s film festival

Looking for Oum Kulthum. Courtesy  Studio PUNTOeVIRGOLA
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With the Venice Film Festival opening, Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, whose films Salt of the Sea (2008) and When I Saw You (2010), both served as the country's Oscar nominations, has spoken out about a lack of diversity at the festival, and at European film festivals in general: "Very often, half of the films screened at Arab festivals are directed by women, or even more," she told  Variety earlier this month. "Compare that with major European film festivals, and it's the opposite story. Look at the Venice line-up this year: 21 films in the official competition, and only one of them directed by a woman? That's something you would hardly find in an Arab festival."

Jacir has a point, and it's not just women who appear somewhat under-represented at this year's festival. Not a single film from the Arab world features in this year's competition line-up either – the closest approximation is French/Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche's Mektoub, My Love : Canto Uno, though as a French-language film, funded, shot and set in France with a French cast and a title that mashes up French, Arabic, English and Italian, it could hardly be held up as a textbook example of Arab cinema.

To find any movies from the region at this year's festival, we have to look a little further afield, to the concurrent, ­independently run Venice Days spin-off, which features two films from the region among the 12 films in its competition section. Iranian-American director Shirin Neshat, who previously won the Silver Lion at Venice for 2009's Women Without Men, returns with Looking for Umm Kulthum.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 30:  Shirin Neshat attends the London Burning Launch Event at The ICA supported by Mulberry at the ICA on September 30, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Mulberry)
Shirin Neshat. David M. Benett / Dave Benett / Getty Images for Mulberry

The film features rising star Yasmine Raees, who picked up Diff's Best Actress Award for her role in Mohammed Khan's 2013 film Factory Girl.

As the name suggests, the movie tells the story of the legendary Egyptian singer and actress Umm Kulthum, who paired her career as an entertainer with a life of social activism, seeking to break the cultural and gender barriers of conservative, 20th-century Egyptian society. Kulthum was also known for hosting concerts and donating her fee as well as the concerts' profits to support the Egyptian army in the war against Israel. The film is a German, Austrian, Italian, and Moroccan co-production, and was shot in Morocco and Austria.

Also in competition at Venice Days, Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaïdi returns with his first film as a director since 2011's Death for Sale – fans have seen him recently playing a part in Jacques Audiard's critically acclaimed, 2015, Tamil-language drama Dheepan.

In Volubilis, Mouhcine Malzi plays Abdelkader, a security guard in the Moroccan city of Meknes. He has recently married Malika, a maid, played by Nadia Kounda. The pair are madly in love, and despite their financial difficulties, they dream of living a long and blissful life together. However, Abdelkader experiences a violent incident at work, and the pair's destiny spirals in an unexpected direction. Volubilis is a Moroccon, French and Qatari co-production, and is set to receive an international cinema release thanks to a distribution deal with French distributor and exporter Doc & Film International.

Back over at the main festival, there may be a lack of regional films in competition, but the uncompleted Egyptian-German docu-mentary, Dream Away, is set to take part in the Final Cut workshop programme. It aims to assist in the completion of Arab and African films that are still in the production phase, by exposing producers and directors to international film professionals, distributors, and potential partners, with a 5,000 (Dh22,065) prize available for the best film. Dream Away is directed by Marouan Omara from Egypt and Johanna Domke from Germany, who previously worked together on the 2014 censorship documentary Crop. Their latest collaboration follows the struggle of rural youth working in the tourist industry in the Egyptian resort city Sharm El Sheikh. In this Westernised environment, some seem to find the values of freedom and independence to which they have aspired since the 2011 Revolution, while others equate vacationers' behaviours with sin.

Dream Away is co-produced by Alexandria-based Fig Leaf Studios and German production house Monokel.

There have been some new additions to the line-up at the main festival since the full schedule was announced at the end of June. Jon Woo is probably the biggest name among the late additions – he returns to the crime thriller genre with Manhunt, which will premiere out of competition. Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins director Stephen Frears joins Jane Fonda and Robert Redford on the list of stars due to receive career achievement awards – he's set to receive the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award.

The Venice Film Festival opens today with the world premiere of Alexander Payne's sci-fi Downsizing, while other directors who will present eagerly anticipated new movies at the event include Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), George Clooney (Suburbicon) and Andrew Haigh (Lean on Pete).


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