The many faces of Oum Kulthum

In "Looking for Oum Kulthum", successful Iranian artist Shirin Neshat has created a highly personal work about the Egyptian singer. In conversation with Schayan Riaz, she talks about the political dimension of icons and the patriarchal nature of the film industry

By Schayan Riaz

In your new film "Looking for Oum Kulthum", a female filmmaker sets out to make a biopic about the iconic Egyptian diva. What were your aims during the making of this project?

Shirin Neshat: Initially, I too just wanted to make a straightforward biopic about Oum Kulthum. But I found that I was far more interested in exploring what it is that I find so interesting about Oum Kulthum. What part of her life and career I actually wanted to present. So I invented the character of a female film-maker who could ask the questions for me. She is basically a version of me, which is what turned the film into a process of self-discovery. Rather than going on a quest to find Oum Kulthum, it became a quest to find myself. Or rather, I faced myself.

But what was it about Oum Kulthum that attracted you in the first place?

Neshat: I am obsessed with strong women from the Middle East: poets, writers, musicians. And I always thought that a film about Oum Kulthum would be great. After all, sheʹs a great subject for cinema. This project was my way of paying tribute to her – this woman who achieved such huge levels of popularity. Itʹs pretty rare for a female artist to succeed in such a conservative patriarchal environment. When Oum Kulthum died, 4 million people came to her funeral! But as I said, I found out that the project was more about me wanting to find answers about myself, being a smaller artist in relation to her.

Do you feel that the process helped you get to know Oum Kulthum better?

Neshat: Yes, I must admit that I am now an expert on Oum Kulthum! Apart from watching archive footage, reading lots of books about her or even meeting her family in Cairo, I spoke to various people from different sections of Egyptian society, in order to understand their relationship to Oum Kulthumʹs music.

And what did you find out?

Neshat: What surprised me most was that thereʹs no single opinion about her. Some people simply adore her and see her as a goddess, while others criticise her, particularly because of her collaboration with political leaders. Weʹve tried to show that aspect of her life in the film too, how she manoeuvred politics in her complex career, spanning the King Farouk monarchy right through to Gamal Abdel Nasserʹs regime. Ultimately I was forced to realise that you cannot really deconstruct a myth. A myth is a myth; you cannot devour or dissect it. An artist like Oum Kulthum is only born once in a century.

You just mentioned the politics. And Oum Kulthumʹs performances had a certain political quality to them as well, even though she might not have intended them to be political. This is of course a completely hypothetical question, but what do you think Oum Kulthum would be doing in todayʹs Egypt, where there is a lot of censorship?

Neshat: Thatʹs a good question and perhaps one that Egyptians should answer. I understand that the country is going through a very difficult period. Once again, the spirit of the Egyptians is on the decline, due to the heavy pressure of censorship and lack of freedom of expression. Itʹs indeed heart-breaking after the tremendous and euphoric experience of the Arab Spring. Coming from Iran, a country that has been battling a dictatorship for decades, I understand that the people in Egypt are fatigued by the idea of revolutions and further bloodshed. Thatʹs why they maybe donʹt know how to protest against this kind of tyranny anymore. In my opinion, Oum Kulthum strangely represents a voice of “hope”, both with her music and her lyrics. She transports Egyptians to a wonderful space, be it a political, emotional or mystical.[embed:render:embedded:node:31608]Your lead actresses Neda Rahmanian and Yasmin Raeis are German-Iranian and Egyptian respectively. You yourself are from Iran and live in New York. What does nationality mean to you in 2018, especially with regards to an artist like Oum Kulthum, who transcended borders?

Neshat: There was a point in the project when I realised that the film we were making needed to reflect the reality of how it was actually being made. So "Looking for Oum Kulthum" is consciously an international effort made by non-Egyptians, about an Arab icon. As a result multiple languages were being spoken on set simultaneously. Some people remained very critical and I show this in several scenes in the film. I encountered a degree of hesitation Arab men in particular, who simply didnʹt believe in the film, because I myself am not Arab. Even though I clearly stated that this was not a biopic, but rather my own point of view. I tried to be as honest as possible about my challenges in making this film. What helped me in the end was the fact that Oum Kulthum went from being an Arab icon to an international star. This gave me the licence to approach her differently, to approach her as my muse.

In the film, you also touch upon toxic masculinity and how women, especially in the film industry, are treated. How do you see your film in the light of campaigns like #MeToo?

Neshat: Film is by nature a male-dominated business. Oddly enough, although Iʹm always surrounded by men when Iʹm working, I have never been treated badly. In my immediate independent film community, I have always felt respected and gender has hardly been an issue. But there is no doubt in my mind that there is discrimination against women in the film business. It amazes me to see what some actresses have to go through, in order to make it in Hollywood, or how few films by female directors see the light of day. Ironically, "Looking for Oum Kulthum" is a film by a woman, about women. So, while the film can be criticised for all sorts of reasons, it remains rare in its total and uncompromising feminist point of view.

Interview conducted by Schayan Riaz

© 2018