The film “Looking for Oum Kulthum” by Iranian director Shirin Neshat takes on a topic that verges on the sacred to Egyptians, and to an extent to the rest of the Arab world: the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum, whose fame is as strong as ever more than 40 years after her death.
The fact that Neshat, as a non-Arab, tackled the subject of Kulthum’s life and legacy has made her a target for criticism in Egypt, and the film, released in September 2017, had only a limited screening in the country. It was shown at the Aswan International Women Film Festival in February 2018 and at the Cairo Cinema Days festival in April 2018 and otherwise has not been distributed in theaters in Egypt, in spite of having played at prestigious film festivals around the world.
However, Neshat has insisted that Kulthum’s influence spreads beyond the Arab world and that the struggles faced by Kulthum as a female artist in a male-dominated society are similar to the struggles still faced by women in Iran and elsewhere.
In fact, Neshat had initially set out to make a straightforward biopic about Kulthum, but ultimately changed courses and made the film into a story within a story, following the path of an Iranian female filmmaker roughly modeled on Neshat herself, shooting a film about the iconic artist. The character of the filmmaker shares Neshat’s “own perspectives and challenges as an Iranian woman director attempting to make a film about an iconic Egyptian singer,” as she wrote.
The film plays with some of the criticisms Neshat herself has faced, including the fact that a non-Arabic speaker cannot truly understand or appreciate Kulthum. In one scene, for instance, an Arab woman asks the filmmaker why she would make a film about Oum Kulthum when she does not speak Arabic.
Neshat, an Iranian-born filmmaker living in exile in New York, directed her first feature film, “Women Without Men,” in 2009, for which she won the Silver Lion award for best director at the Venice Interna-tional Film Festival. “Looking for Oum Kulthum” also made its debut at the festival. Neshat co-directed the film with Shoja Azari, another Iranian-born filmmaker.
While “Women Without Men” followed the struggles of women inside Iran, Neshat has said that she wanted to move the subject of her next film away from Iran because she has been unable to enter the country in many years and no longer has an insider’s perspective. She was banned from re-entering Iran because of her work in 1996.
“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,” Neshat told Harper’s Bazaar in an interview. “I am done with obsessing about a country that I no longer have access to.”
The director told TRT World that she was familiar with Oum Kulthum from her time growing up in Iran, where her parents listened to Kulthum and her songs are a favorite of Iranian taxi and bus drivers, just as they are in the Arab world. She noted that there is a strong Arab influence in southern Iran, where Arabic is also spoken, and that Kulthum’s popularity in Iran is also related to her similarity to Persian classical singers.
But as beloved as Kulthum might be outside Egypt, it can’t rival the obsession with her within her home country. Her funeral in 1975 was attended by four million people.
Writing in the Middle Eastern music publication Scene Noise, Egyptian writer Moustafa Daly noted: “While we take pride in her undying world-stardom, and definitely don’t mind sharing her with the world, we’re perfectly clear on that she belongs to us and that she is ours, and ours only.”
As such, it’s perhaps not surprising that the film was not necessarily greeted with open arms in Egypt. It didn’t help that, due to insurance issues and the difficulty of getting permits to shoot in Egypt, Neshat opted to shoot the film in Morocco instead, although she visited Egypt extensively to research Kulthum’s life for the film, and the movie’s lead, Yasmin Raeis, is a well-known Egyptian actress.
Some also pointed to inaccuracies in the film’s portrayal of Egypt and Kulthum’s life. For instance, the Egyptian news site Al Masrawy noted a scene featuring women’s protest taking place in 1914, although the first such protest known to have taken place in Egypt occurred in 1919. A review on the Al Maqal news site criticized the film for alleged inaccuracies in the portraying of historical details, as well as places and fashions, and concluded the film was “just an attempt to dismantle the myth of Oum Kulthum, but it failed.”
Other critics, as Al Monitor noted, complained of historical inaccuracies – in a scene, Oum Kulthum chokes while singing before President Gamal Abdel Nasser, which never actually happened – and fashion faux pas – scenes showing Kulthum in a short-sleeved dress and an audience member wearing a tarboush hat at a concert in the 1960s, which, the critic argued, was no longer worn Egypt at the time.
Al Monitor reported that Beirut-based MC Distributors, which holds the distribution rights to the film in Egypt, was unsure whether the film would ever be widely released there, as they were worried about a box office flop.
In an interview with Scene Noise, Neshat defended her decision to make the film, saying: “If there is one thing we all agree on in the Middle East, despite our religious and political differences, it’s our shared love for Oum Kulthum.”
“I have been attacked so many times by some in Arab communities for daring to make a film about Oum Kulthum as a non-Arab,” Neshat said. “And for me, aside from the argument that Oum Kulthum has simply transcended her Egyptian and Arab status into an international star, and has turned into an idol for millions of women across the region, it should be acknowledged that an artist from Shia background such as myself – from a country that is in direct conflict with Egypt – has spent 6 years to make a tribute to a Sunni female artist.”