Shirin Neshat’s movie-within-a-movie about an ambitious Persian director’s attempts to film the life and legacy of legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum.
Looking for Oum Kulthum
Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari
For the unlucky who don't already know, Oum Kulthum was one of the world's great singers. Born in Egypt's Nile Delta, her music soared all over the Arab world from the 1920s through the '70s, selling millions of recordings and earning her the title "Star of the East." She was, and is, an icon.
Filmmaker and artist Shirin Neshat (whose debut feature, Women Without Men, was at the 2009 Festival) sidesteps any attempt at a linear biopic and instead confronts Kulthum's meaning and magnitude through the lens of another artist trying to tell her story. Like Neshat, her protagonist (Neda Rahmanian) is a filmmaker of Persian origin, neighbour to but different from the Arab culture that shaped Kulthum. What the women have in common, though, is a shared battle against the constraints imposed on female artists. Looking For Oum Kulthum crafts a visually dazzling, multi-planed mirror between the mid-century Egyptian diva and the contemporary film director seeking a creative connection with her.
Like those before her who have made films about filmmaking, Neshat includes the frustrations with actors and the struggles to manifest the film the director sees in her head. But she also foregrounds how gender shapes those struggles. One actor (Paradise Now's Kais Nashif ) challenges his director, saying she doesn't know enough about Kulthum. "This is what happens when you give a serious film to a female director," he sneers.
Following on the success of her acclaimed moving image installations and her first film, Neshat delivers a gorgeous reflection on art, gender, and her own shifting place in the world.