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Looking for Oum Kulthum, a film by Shirin Neshat

Oum Kulthum (1904–1975) was born into a poor family in a small village in the Nile delta. She would become a legendary Egyptian singer and a symbol of Arab nationalism. The streets emptied on Thursday evenings at 5 when people gathered around the radio to hear Oum Kulthum sing. At her death millions poured into the streets of Cairo for her funeral procession.

Oum Kulthum's father was a village imam who sang traditional religious songs at weddings and on holidays to earn extra money for his family. He took his daughter with him to sing dressed as a boy because girls were not permitted. The poor and dispossessed and later the wealthy and powerful alike listened with rapture and tears when Oum Kulthum sang.

In the early 1920s the family moved to Cairo where Oum Kulthum made a name for herself singing in theaters, cabarets, and the salons and homes of the wealthy. She acquired sophistication by copying the manners of women in the homes where she performed and by studying poetry and music. By the end of the decade she was one of Cairo's most sought-after singers and best-paid performers. As a young woman she sang for King Farouk. She cultivated a persona as a patriotic Egyptian and a devout Muslim, was a friend of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, acted in six films, was president of the musicians union, and served on numerous government commissions on the arts.

They say [Kulthum] worked very hard during her life to become an image and a myth. Everything was absolutely controlled because she didn’t want people to devour her. It’s the opposite of what we do today and a lot of the biopics you see now are made about women who had such a tragic ending. Failing is OK as an artist, I’ve failed, fallen and gotten up in my work but I’m not Oum Kulthum. I’m not a myth. She was something else and we need examples like her for women. She never allowed people to break her down, especially men. —Shirin Neshat (quoted at NW Film Center, Looking for Oum Kulthum)

Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017) (Trailer) is a film about a director making a film about Oum Kulthum. Mitra the director is portrayed with a compelling intensity by Neda Rahmanian (b. 1978 in Tehran, Iran). Like Oum Kulthum, Mitra is successful in her career, comfortable among the upper classes, welcomed into the homes of sophisticated, modern women. In some quarters, though, she is suspect as the director of a film about the larger-than-life Oum Kulthum. Mitra is female, but that is only part of it. She is Iranian. She does not speak Arabic. Even those women who welcome her into their homes question how she could possibly understand the meaning of Oum Kulthum. Shirin Neshat (b. 1957 in Qazvin, Iran), director of Looking for Oum Kulthum, is female. She is Iranian. She does not speak Arabic.

Mitra is a solitary figure, dressed always in black, always fashionably. Her features are sharp and angular, her gaze resolute, almost hypnotic, perhaps suggestive of the hypnotic effect of Oum Kulthum's voice. She is the director as auteur. Her film will be a product of her artistic and creative vision, and she demands much of herself and her crew in pursuit of that vision, shooting take after take until the actors are exhausted and Ghada (award-winning actress Yasmin Raeis), as the young Oum Kulthum, is losing her voice after singing for hours. One more take, Mitra insists, time after time, one more take.

Shirin Neshat says that in her work emotion comes in image (conversation with Ryuichi Sakamoto). Early in the film Mitra walks into a scene during the filming of her film. Oum Kulthum as a girl, dressed as a boy, is signing in a village square. The scene is in black and white except for Mitra, although that is not immediately evident because she is as always dressed in black. The faces of the villagers who stop what they are doing, captivated by Oum Kulthum's voice, play off against the face of the director looking to find Oum Kulthum. Or is Mitra creating a character? Is the reality Oum Kulthum? Or Mitra's vision, which is neither altogether different nor precisely the same as the reality of Oum Kluthum?

Another early scene in black and white provides historical perspective and explicitly introduces themes that resonate throughout the film. We witness a political demonstration by women demanding their political rights. The time is the second decade of the twentieth century. Police on horseback charge into the crowd when two women remove their veils. It is against this backdrop that Oum Kulthum makes her remarkable rise.

What would a film about making a film be without challenges on the set? A male actor is in Mitra's words a male chauvinist, sexist bastard. He is impertinent and defiant, questioning and undermining her authority, improvising his lines and ignoring the script because he believes that Mitra does not understand Oum Kulthum and what she meant to ordinary people and because he thinks women are not capable of directing serious films.

The difference of opinion about Oum Kulthum runs deeper than mere sexism. Ghada is not a professional actress. She auditioned for the role only at the urging of friends who think she has a beautiful voice, and she was reluctant to take the part when it was offered. She listens attentively to Mitra's guidance, but she too thinks Mitra misunderstands Oum Kulthum. Mitra is wrong to represent Oum Kulthum as someone who left her past behind when she became a star. For Ghada, family and village remain a part of Oum Kulthum's identity throughout her life. She is never as self-assured and independent as Mitra supposes. Even Oum Kulthum has doubts.

Mitra's own pursuit of fame and career has its toll. The pressures that go with making a film are compounded when her fourteen-year-old son she has not seen in seven years sends text messages saying he hates her. Then her husband calls to tell her that their son has disappeared and it is her fault. Mitra explains this to Amir, her assistant, sole confidant, and maybe only friend, and says she must go to Iran to find her son. Amir replies that she cannot return to Iran. She does not argue. There is no need to explain.

Mitra steps away for a time when it all becomes too much. Amir finishes filming, faithful to her vision. Upon her return, she tells Amir and her producers that the film is not right. The story she wrote is no longer in her heart. She has made revisions to the script. This does not go over well with the producers, who are convinced the new version will be a disaster. Mitra is adamant. Amir advises that she cannot go to war with her producers.

Are gender dynamics and sexism at play here in the attitude of the male producers? Or is their judgment based on legitimate aesthetic, historical, and commercial considerations? Neshat does not go at the issue head-on. She does not need to do so. The specter of bias is omnipresent and inescapable not just in Arab countries, but in Europe, the US, throughout today's world. We cannot but be aware of it in circumstances where a female director is dependent on male producers to get her film made. At the same time the phenomenon of Oum Kulthum introduces complexities that make a verdict of sexism in isolation from other factors suspect.

I should at this point note the obvious: What I know about Oum Kulthum is limited to Shirin Neshat's film and a few articles found online in preparation for this essay. My knowledge of Arab culture is that of any reasonably well informed, well read Westerner with a healthy intellectual curiosity, but no more than that, which is to say, less that I would like for the task at hand. I dip a toe into these murky waters because I was knocked out by Looking for Oum Kulthum and want to tell others about it.

As was mentioned previously, in Neshat's work emotion comes in image. Dialogue is not irrelevant, it matters, but it is in images of Mitra and of Oum Kulthum that the film touches my heart. Mitra's new version of her film has Oum Kulthum lapsing into silence, perhaps in a sense stepping away from her stardom, suddenly doubting if she really belongs, while audience and musicians fidget awkwardly at a concert attended by Egypt's president and its social and political elite. Earlier Mitra had projected her pursuit of fame and career onto her subject. Now it is her flaws and self-doubt that she projects onto Oum Kulthum.

Mitra is intelligent, talented, strong-willed, and she remains so to the end. For her to walk away from her Oum Kulthum project is from one perspective inexplicable and from another inevitable. It is not a gesture of defeat when she walks away having given Amir her blessing to finish the film that is no longer in her heart. I see her as resolute, although I do not know where that resolve will take her. She returns to her lovely home by the sea, dressed as always in black, always fashionably, always alone. On the patio stands Oum Kulthum in iconic dark glasses and green dress, leaning against the railing, gazing out at the waves crashing upon the beach.

Mitra joins Oum Kulthum, two remarkable women, strong women, women who are alone, their elbows on the railing as they look out at the sea. Oum Kulthum asks why Mitra took away her moment of greatest triumph. Mitra says, "You can't please everyone," to which Oum Kulthum responds, "So arrogant." The end.


A film about a tormented director making a film must for me call to mind Fellini's and Truffaut's Day for Night. Shirin Neshat's film holds up wonderfully in that company. Looking for Oum Kulthum makes me wish more than ever that I was a more insightful critic and a better writer than I am, that I might do Neshat and her film justice. I can only hope to be able to see more films by Shirin Neshat and more films featuring Neda Rahmanian and Yasmin Raeis.

Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) is a photographer and filmmaker who came to the US from Iran at age 17. She studied painting at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a B.A. in 1983. In 1990 she went back to Iran "11 years after the Islamic Revolution transformed her country. Men no longer made eye contact with her. Cosmopolitan Tehranian women who'd worn mini-skirts during her youth had become graphic shapes on the street." (Ulaby). New York City is her home base.

Neshat's works are included in the collections of the Tate Gallery in London, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center (Soliloquy) in Minneapolis, and elsewhere. Her short film Turbulent (1997) shows a split-screen with a man singing to an all-male audience on one side and a woman onstage before an empty concert hall on the other. It was awarded the 48th Venice Biennial prize. Women Without Men (2009), winner of the Venezia 2009 Silver Lion for best director, is set in 1953 at the time of the coup orchestrated by the CIA and Britain's MI6 that overthrew the government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

Looking for Oum Kulthum appeared in the NW Film Center's Reel Music 36 festival which runs through February 16. A week before seeing Oum Kulthum I caught a documentary about Japanese composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto (Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA), another wonderful discovery. That film opens with Sakamoto examining a piano damaged but not destroyed by the tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and his involvement with demonstrations calling for elimination of nuclear energy in Japan. He talks about the composing music for films and working with Bertolucci on The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. What comes across most as he reflects about music and art, what he finds in Tarkovsky’s use of music and sound in films, the environment, and his own prospects with the diagnosis of stage 3 throat cancer is that he is a decent and thoughtful person. I like his attitude about his illness and how the film deals with it. It’s there, part of his life. He wishes to live on a good long time while recognizing that he may not. He is affected by the disease but not obsessed by it.

While searching online for information about Shirin Neshat for this essay I happened upon a video of Sakamoto and Neshat in conversation at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. It turns out that Sakamoto composed music for Neshat's Women Without Men. It is a lovely conversation between two accomplished artists who like and respect one another.


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