Oum Kulthum was a legendary Egyptian singer and the most famous woman in Egypt after Cleopatra. In her film "Looking for Oum Kulthum," Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat has brought the diva’s story to the screen, with personal touches.

A young Iranian filmmaker has personal problems plaguing her as she tries to complete a film about legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum.
A young Iranian filmmaker has personal problems plaguing her as she tries to complete a film about legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum. ( Courtesy of Razor Film / TRTWorld )

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – Shirin Neshat, an Iranian visual artist who lives and works in New York City, was in Istanbul for the 37th Istanbul Film Festival, to serve as a judge at the Human Rights in Cinema Competition. 

In addition to her duties as a judge, Neshat also attended the screening of her second feature film, Looking for Oum Kulthum, a film-within-a-film that is as much about the legendary Egyptian singer as it is about a female Iranian filmmaker. TRT World caught up with the gracious and modest 60-year-old after the screening at Istanbul’s historic Atlas Cinema to discuss her film.

In the film, an Arab woman asks the Iranian filmmaker why, of all people, she wants to make a film about Oum Kulthum, when she doesn’t even speak Arabic (implying she wouldn’t understand Kulthum’s songs properly). As an Iranian artist, what attracted you to the Egyptian superstar?

Shirin Neshat: The reasons I gravitated towards the story of Oum Kulthum are several: But one is that I really felt the urge to move away from Iranian subjects as someone who hasn’t been back for so many years – I was making work that felt nostalgic.

I also have an obsession with music: I think it is very powerful in the way it breaks all boundaries between cultures.

And thirdly because I think she is as a woman artist, someone I’m completely inspired by in the way that she broke through all the tough rules; she became the single most important artist of the 20th century as a woman. She was loved by men, women, rich, poor, Sunni, Shia, Jews, Muslims … It’s unprecedented that any artist, male or female, even in Western culture, reach to that level of popularity. Four million people went to her funeral.

In general I think whether we like it or not, there is no one like Oum Kulthum in the Middle East. For me it was both wanting to pay a small tribute within my means, but also face some of my questions as a woman artist from the Middle East on a much smaller scale. So it was a very complicated project because there were many different intentions behind the making of it.

Looking for Oum Kulthum is director Shirin Neshat's second feature film.
Looking for Oum Kulthum is director Shirin Neshat's second feature film. ( Courtesy of IKSV/ TRTWorld )

When was the first time you came to know about Oum Kulthum? Who introduced you to her music?

SN: Oum Kulthum was known in Iran, very well known. In fact my parents listened to her regularly. I was a little too young, but I remember that even in the long bus rides across the country hours long that they would play the music of Oum Kulthum. Because the south of Iran is also Arabic speaking and there are a lot of people who knew her extremely well. So she was not an unknown name to us.

You also have to remember that classical Persian music is not that different than classical Arabic music in its approach to poetry, mysticism, and ecstacy, because it’s the same technique really. The lyrics of some of the songs that she sang came from the Persian poet [Omar] Khayyam so we related to her music both on a musical and a poetic sense. 

Your film is a fictionalised account of legendary Egyptian singer. It’s also an account of a female Iranian filmmaker struggling to make a personal film in a male-dominated and conservative film industry. How much fact and how much fiction did you utilise for either woman protagonist?

SN: I think for Oum Kulthum everything [shown in the film] was fact except when she lost her voice; that was totally fiction. [As for] the female character, who was the Iranian woman character, it was really based on some of my own experiences, the challenges that I had when i first started to make the film. I thought I was going to make a biopic and then I was really facing criticisms from the Arab world thinking “How dare you as a non-Arab speaking [artist], someone who didn’t grow up with Oum Kulthum, who doesn’t understand her lyrics, make a film about her?”

Then I completely changed the direction of the story and made a story inside of a story. So it shows my challenges as a non-Arab making a film about her, but also my own challenges as a woman artist who has a child – but not exactly fact because I didn’t abandon my son. So there are many aspects of both the period film and the actual production that were both reality and fiction.

Your film talks about Oum Kulthum’s hesitation at leaving her family behind, or her shock at losing her voice in her later years. Did you pick these milestones simply by empathy and imagination, or through your research?

SN: Actually it’s the opposite. The more you try to find flaws and weaknesses of Oum Kulthum, the more difficult it was. And mainly not that she didn’t have flaws and not that she didn’t suffer and not that she didn’t have pain, but it’s just she made sure nobody found out about it.

In fact when we visited her family eventually in Cairo, they [told] us how there was a basement to her house that sometimes when she felt really bad and depressed she would just go and lock herself inside that room, and she would never come out until she felt better. Another [detail] was she never confided with people about her own suffering.

My theory is that if she sang songs that brought people to tears she must have felt these emotions herself. There’s just no way you can make people feel pain if you have not felt the pain yourself. The issue that I found that was extremely difficult to go under her skin because there’s no real factual information about her: like she never had relationships that she broke down; she never became a drug addict; she didn’t commit suicide; she was not abusive; she just very carefully shaped her career to be something of a magnitude that no one could devour and bring her down to itsy bitsy celebrity things or gossip.

And I respect her for that but that made it a difficult film to make because she never showed her vulnerability. Whereas I myself I’m always going up and down. And that’s what the story’s about this woman who thought she was gonna be like Oum Kulthum but finds herself falling apart but she thinks she will bring her down to her level and she doesn’t do a good job at it. 

In her five-decade long career until 1972, the year she died in, Umm Kulthum gave at least one monthly concert, always on a Thursday.
In her five-decade long career until 1972, the year she died in, Umm Kulthum gave at least one monthly concert, always on a Thursday. ( Courtesy: Life )

The film began as a biopic and turned into a metafiction about the difficulties of making a film about a beloved public figure. What does your experience tell us about fragmented histories such as Oum Kulthum’s?

SN: I found that it’s just like history, that there are different interpretations of that history – and it’s the same about her: there are very many different interpretations about who Oum Kulthum was. In fact if you talk to every Egyptian they have their own description of how she was who she was.

But she was always very [secretive].  That is something that I find very interesting, that you cannot have just one description of who she was. Some people see her as a symbol, as an angel, some people see her as very demonic and dominant and manipulative. So there’s a lot of different images that she has been called but I think my film was about how I couldn’t really reach the truth in her. You know it was so difficult. And at the end that’s what the story became.

Why do you think it is important to depict revered historical/cultural figures as human beings in art?

SN: Well I never considered this but for some reason I’m very interested in historical times and historical figures. I don’t currently live in Iran; I don’t currently live in the Arab world – but historical figures and historical times are very interesting because they are more accessible and you could give it your own interpretation; because nobody has experienced them no one that I know. So in a way you’re more free because then it becomes your interpretation. But if I [were to] make something very contemporary it’s a very different story. 

So something about her where she reaches this iconic status, this legendary status, then it could be for example she’s an idol for millions of women in the Middle East each one of them for a different reason. For me this is my little contribution to in terms of how I saw her and that’s it.

Shirin Neshat, an Iranian visual artist who lives and works in New York City, was in Istanbul for the 37th Istanbul Film Festival, to serve as a judge at the Human Rights in Cinema Competition.
Shirin Neshat, an Iranian visual artist who lives and works in New York City, was in Istanbul for the 37th Istanbul Film Festival, to serve as a judge at the Human Rights in Cinema Competition. ( Melis Alemdar/ TRTWorld )

What was happening in Egypt politically and socially during Oum Kulthum’s life?

SN: I’m glad you brought that up because for me that is an interesting part about her story that I became very interested in. She lived through the monarchy of King Farouk in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s until 1952 when [Egypt] had the social revolution. The British were kicked out; then [Gamal Abdel] Nasser came into power.

So we see these two distinct periods of political history in Egypt while she lived and how she in fact was transported from being an ally with King Farouk and the court then next was she became the best friend of Nasser and she became a collaborator in many ways.

That’s why I really focused on those two concerts in a way that shows not only her relationship as a young and older Oum Kulthum but how the Egyptian society changed: as you can see one was very Westernised and the other – after the revolution there was much less European fashion and there was much more military men; there was a very different Egypt. So I think it’s interesting that just impressionistically we focus on these two distinct periods which I think mark the period that she lived in in a most important way.

Source: TRT World