Shirin Neshat Talks About Her Latest Film: A Tribute to Oum Kulthum

By Ahmad Rafat

Shirin Neshat – the Iranian visual artist and filmmaker who won the Silver Lion award for best director at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival for “Women Without Men” – was in London recently for the U.K. premiere of her latest work, “Looking For Oum Kulthum,” a tribute to the legendary Egyptian vocalist.

The film had previously been screened at the Toronto and Venice film festivals earlier this year.

Kayhan Life met with Neshat on the sidelines of the London Film Festival.

Why did you make a film about Oum Kulthum?

As you know, all of my films are about women. Music is also a big part of my work. My videos are about female singers.

I always thought Oum Kulthum was an extraordinary phenomenon in the Middle East. She not only achieved success, but also overcame gender stereotypes. She was well liked and respected by men, women, poor people, the affluent class, religious people, non-believers, Arabs and Israelis. Nearly four million people attended her funeral in 1975 in Cairo.
I was very curious about her life. I wanted to find out how she reached the heights of success and fame and became a legend in her own time. There are not many people in the world who have accomplished so much in a lifetime.

There is a sociopolitical component to all of my films. As you know, the West has a negative view of the Islamic world. This fact makes it even more imperative to highlight the lives of exceptional individuals from our region.

If I’m not mistaken, you and Shoja Azari worked over five years on the screenplay for this film. Why did it take so long?

Shoja also helped me direct the film. We originally intended to make a biopic about Oum Kulthum. We traveled to Egypt to research her life. At one point, we realized that that wasn’t the right way to approach the project. As a rule, biographical films are not that interesting. Shoja and I are Iranians, don’t speak Arabic, and lack an in-depth understanding of Egyptian culture.

During our discussions, a number of important questions came up. I had to ask myself: why was I so obsessed with Oum Kulthum? Why was I so fascinated with her? These questions really interested me. I worked alone for a while. At one point, Shoja started helping me again, and together we wrote the script.

I found it almost impossible to get under her skin, despite her overwhelming fame and popularity. Oum Kulthum never revealed anything about herself. She was secretive about every aspect of her life, including her feelings. The more we tried to discover her as a female artist and a woman, the more elusive her character became.

So the story is about an Iranian female artist who sets out to make a film about Oum Kulthum, but fails to fully capture the essence of her creative life.

How has the film been received in the Arab world? How have the media and critics reacted to an Iranian director making a film about a legendary Arab singer?

As as an artist, I expect a certain degree of unfavorable feedback and reactions to my work. For instance, many Iranians criticized my film “Women Without Men.” Some people didn’t like the fact that we filmed it in Casablanca, which in their opinion didn’t resemble Iran.

As Iranians, Shoja and I took a massive risk by making a film about an Egyptian artist. It was a challenging project. I now understand why no one, not even in the Arab world, had tried to make a film about Oum Kulthum. Many people still worship her. She is a legend and an icon. That doesn’t give a filmmaker much room for maneuver. I’m sure we’ll be criticized for failing to depict an accurate portrait of Cairo and Oum Kulthum.

But our critics must understand that this film is about an Iranian woman’s interpretation of Oum Kulthum. We make it clear that this is not a docudrama. We admit that as non-Arab filmmakers we lack in-depth knowledge of Egyptian culture. This is not a historical account. The film pays homage to Oum Kulthum. It celebrates her life and puts the spotlight on her contribution to art and culture of the region.

We worked hard on this project. We researched various aspects of her life, including clothes, makeup and hair style etc. We worked for a long time with the actress who played Oum Kulthum in the film. We spent a lot of time on details.

The film introduces Oum Kulthum to a whole new audience who may not know who she was. It is not a perfect film, but it does have many positive points.

You recently directed a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Aida,” conducted by Riccardo Muti, at the 2017 Salzburg Music Festival. The story takes place in Egypt. Was this a coincidence, or did you accept the job of directing Aida because you’d made “Looking For Oum Kulthum?”

I was hesitant to accept the job when they first contacted me about directing “Aida.” I turned it down at first, but changed my mind. I was involved with the project for three years. It was very interesting. The two projects ran parallel. I was making a film about contemporary Egyptian music while directing a classical opera about that country’s ancient history. These projects also served as a tool to dispel some of the negative stereotypes about Egypt and the Arab world.

“Aida” (first performed in 1871) has been criticized by many Arab intellectuals, including the late Edward Said, who believed that it glorified imperialism. The project was an aesthetic and artistic challenge. I had to direct the performance by designing a visually beautiful stage and reinterpreting the classical narrative.

Neither work is perfect. I’m sure both have many cinematic and musical flaws. These are worthwhile risks.

You work in film, music, photography and video art. What lies ahead for you in 2018?

Shoja and I are collaborating on a new project which involves film, art and video. I’m hoping to work on it in the U.S. I hope it won’t take six years to complete it. I’m really excited about it.

You and Shoja Azari are partners in work and life. How do you make it work?

We’ve been work and life partners for 20 years now. We are best friends. This is very precious. Shoja knows me better than anyone else. He knows me as a person, a woman and an artist. He knows my strengths and weaknesses.

Doesn’t he take advantage of your weaknesses?

No. We don’t agree on everything, of course. We criticize each other a lot. We even fight. That being said, Shoja believes in me. His support through the years has made it possible for me to continue with my work. I’m grateful to him for that. I was very fortunate to have met him. We collaborate on every aspect of our work. It is good to have a partner on your creative journey.

As an Iranian female artist, I’ve faced many obstacles living abroad. I’ve experienced gender inequality and other social and professional challenges. It is at times difficult to maintain one’s self-confidence and resolve.

Shoja is an artist in his own right. He has his own artistic identity. We’ve made the partnership work.