The Voice Of Egypt: Shirin Neshat’s Latest Film 'Looking For Oum Kulthum'

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor / Dec 20 2017 / 14:47 PM

The project shines the spotlight on Oum Kulthum, the Egyptian singer and diva whose life paralleled Egypt’s emergence as an independent political force 70 years after British colonial rule, writes Rebecca Anne Proctor

The Voice Of Egypt: Shirin Neshat’s Latest Film 'Looking For Oum Kulthum'
© Razor Film
Still from 'Looking for Oum Kulthum' starring Yasmina Raees. Courtesy of the artist

It’s been nearly 40 years since the death of Egypt’s beloved singer Oum Kulthum and still her voice continues to resonate with people from all walks of life. The religious and the non-religious, the elite and the working class—through the power of her songs Oum Kulthum roused within the people a common love for music and poetry. Across the Arab world, Iran and Israel, people loved her. And to this day, her songs remain symbols for peace and unity.

Acclaimed New York-based artist Shirin Neshat’s latest film Looking for Oum Kulthum, which was among 12 selected films from all over the world at the 74th Venice International Film Festival (30 August-9 September) in competition for the Official Awards, is a ‘film within a film’ telling the tale of an Iranian director by the name of Mitra, played by rising star Yasmine Raees, who is making a film about the legendary Egyptian singer. Neshat, who previously won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2009 for her film Women Without Men, and most recently was among five winners for this year’s prestigious Praemium Imperiale award given by the Japan Art Association, renders the film with her evocative imagery, laden with haunting music, rich costumes and startling scenery.

Looking For Umm Kulthum

Stills from 'Looking for Oum Kulthum' starringYasmina Raees. Courtesy of the artist. © Razor Film

As with all of Neshat’s work, there is a deeper story behind her otherworldly imagery—portrayals that constantly oscillate the artistic discourse between her captivating Middle Eastern subjects and vibrant intellectual dialogue. As Mitra explores the issues faced by Oum Kulthum as a female artist in a male-dominated society, her own struggles surface and merge with those of the late singer. The viewer watches Mitra’s moments of breakdown, her strength and her determination to go on—all filmed while telling the incredible tale of Oum Kulthum’s powerful rise to fame against the fall of British colonialism during the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“On a personal and on an activist level I wanted to show to the Western world that in the Middle East there was a woman who led the artistic community with such magnitude,” says Neshat. “So many millions of people worshipped her, religious and non-religious, from Saudi Arabia to Iran.” The film introduces the Egyptian diva to a large Western community who had never heard of her before. Filmed in Morocco due to restrictions in Egypt, Neshat notes how much time was spent making sure her music was replicated correctly and how even her dress and her hair were given authenticity. “People are very protective of her image,” she adds.

Looking For Umm Kulthum

Still from 'Looking for Oum Kulthum' starringYasmina Raees. Courtesy of the artist. © Razor Film

Regardless of its moving tale, the movie ignited controversy, especially in Iran. “I wanted to move beyond Iran and with this film I really took a big risk,” says Neshat. “Of course, it has been controversial. This film is unusual because it tries to pioneer its own way of storytelling and there have been extreme reactions from Arabic, Iranian and Western viewers.”

The film became Neshat’s mode of inquiry into the life of the great singer, both on a personal level and a larger socio-political level. “I have not been back to Iran since 1996 and I was getting frustrated by this idea of an artist who was always obsessing about Iran and making work that is very nostalgic, always in this framework of exile,” says Neshat. “I am done with obsessing about a country that I no longer have access to. Now I am traveling to so many other places and there are many opportunities to explore other subjects, yet what doesn’t change, even if I am not making work about Iran, is that I am Iranian. What you cannot take away from my work is my Iranian-ness.”

Looking For Umm Kulthum

Stills from 'Looking for Oum Kulthum' starringYasmina Raees. Courtesy of the artist. © Razor Film

Looking for Oum Kulthum is ultimately about an iconic woman and the power of art to move a people during a time of social and political transition. That in and of itself goes beyond race and culture. “I wanted to explore what it meant to be a woman and to achieve that level of popularity and success and how it affects one personal life,” adds Neshat who details that her next film will most likely be shot in the US. “Again, it will be Iranian because I am Iranian.” And like all of Neshat’s wonderfully evocative works that so thoughtfully marry contemporary culture with politics, it will also, most certainly, be about so much more.