This interview is published in partnership with Underline Magazine.
For her second film, after adapting for the screen the controversial Iranian novel Women Without Men in 2009, the New York-based visual artist and independent filmmaker Shirin Neshat has navigated the waters of filmic biography—looking at the life of legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum. Neshat’s film, however, approaches the world-famed star indirectly, by means of a framing narrative, featuring a woman director who is a shooting a biopic about Kulthum. With a fluid structure which intertwines the fictional film, life on the set and the director’s dreams and visions, Looking for Oum Kulthum is a treatise on cinematic historiography and the doubts and fears that haunt a female artist.
NOTEBOOK: Can you walk us through the genesis of this film? What made you pick this Egyptian singer as your subject?
SHIRIN NESHAT: After Women Without Men I developed a love affair with filmmaking and was trying to figure out what my next subject would be. Personally, I felt a desire to no longer work with the subject of Iranian society, because I haven’t been able to go back to Iran for so many years and I didn’t want to always be working in a nostalgic way. Then I thought of Oum Kulthum as a fitting subject. She was Middle Eastern, a female musician and singer. I have tackled issues concerning women in all my films and music is a major part of my narratives, conveying the emotional aspects of each story. For me, music is something that transcends national and cultural boundaries and becomes a gut reaction to socio-political subjects. Oum Kulthum’s mythical status notwithstanding, I feel there is something about her which is very similar to me. Like her, I don’t live a traditional life and I’m always surrounded by men. The only reason that I made this film was to see if it is possible to go under the skin of such an iconic and mythical artist, who seemed to always hide her private and personal issues and devoted herself to the public. The early script was a biopic, but I eventually decided to take on the challenge of a more experimental film, in which issues of womanhood, music and art became central.
NOTEBOOK: History was front and centre in Women Without Men, but is not so much here. What was the reason for that?
NESHAT: In Women Without Men the country of Iran is almost the fifth character and we follow it through its ups and downs. In this film, we used archival footage to show various historical periods andalso depicted the transformation of Egyptian society through Oum Kulthum’s concerns in different periods. But we also have the characters of the director and the actress, so there wasn’t much room to expand very much on the historical stuff—and we didn’t want to overwhelm the audience with too much information. As such, the presentation of history became very impressionistic, but I felt that it was still important to touch on it.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you decide to adopt a self-reflexive structure for your film and what opportunities did this present you with?
NESHAT: I visited Jean-Claude Carrière in Paris to get his advice on the film. He read the biopic script and right off the bat he said, “Forget about a biopic. You should make it contemporary and show why she is still so incredibly relevant and why every generation knows her.” Along the way I came to the conclusion that I should come back to my perspective, because Oum Kulthum is no longer an Egyptian star, but an iconic Middle Eastern star. [I thought] it should be done as an artist looking at another artist. I allowed myself to act like an artist, trying make a film that I don’t know how to make. And from then on the absolute honesty of my attempt as a non-Arab and non-Arab-speaking visual artist and filmmaker became my structure. Of course, this film is an imperfect film and really shows the impossibility of making a film about Oum Kulthum.
NOTEBOOK: How do you compare your own self-reflexive approach with those present in many Iranian films, such as Kiarostami’s films, or a film like Bani-Etemad’s The May Lady ?
NESHAT: I think art is really a reflection of an artist’s life experiences and perspectives and should be made by the transformation of a personal experience into a narrative that might go beyond the artist’s own life story. If you look at my work, there’s so much of me and my personal history inside those images and narratives. Kiarostami to me is more like a mystic and poet whose films are very ambiguous, yet utterly simple reflections about humankind—but they are in fact about his own way of thinking, anxieties, sense of humor and so forth. To me, Bani-Etemad is like a social activist. I watched The May Lady long ago and now that you’ve brought it up I’ve started thinking about the connection. There subject matter is of course similar, that of a single woman constantly experiencing the conflict between her work obligations and being a mother, but in my film there are also other aspects to the narrative. We have an iconic singer who never had a child and then there’s Mitra, the director, who is wondering if it is possible to be a mother and reach that level of greatness. Her questions are mainly about the challenges of being a female artist and not very sociological.
NOTEBOOK: How important was it for you to choose the director’s ethnicity as Iranian?
NESHAT: At some point people said, “Why should she be Iranian?” She could be of any nationality and still be obsessed with Oum Kulthum without knowing Arabic. But I thought that in order to really relate to the story, I had to approach it from my own experience and I simply couldn’t imagine how a character of a different ethnicity might relate to the experiences of Oum Kulthum. It would have made it different and not as close to me, my heart and my experience as a Middle Eastern female artist. Some people even said, “Why don’t you just play the part?” But that was going too far!
NOTEBOOK: Mitra—the director—is presented in an ambivalent light. Her powerful ego serves as an obstacle in relating to others and yet it protects her personal vision. How did you want the spectator feel about her?
NESHAT: There was another actress who was initially cast in this role but it didn’t work out. As the new actress came in at the last minute as a replacement, we didn’t have that much time together. She brought part of what she was to the character. I’m not like Mitra in the film, I’m warm and emotional, but Mitra is very controlled and distant—just like Oum Kulthum, in a way. The way we wrote the script was that when Mitra starts making the film she is feeling good and thinks that she is making a great biopic about an indestructible artist.Then slowly her personal life crumbles and she is criticised by her immediate team, her producers and others. She starts to see a contradiction between how she has thought of herself—as being very strong—and her real, weak and failing self.She wonders what her subject might have felt in a similar situation and this is like a form of revenge. She wants to say, Oum Kulthum was a human being like me, and brings her down—that gets her fired.
NOTEBOOK: One thread that runs through your features is a sort of sisterhood between characters. Here the actress—Ghada—seems to be the only person who can relate to Mitra’s breakdown and brings out the change in her, but following that she vanishes from the film. Can you comment on this?
NESHAT: The character of Ghada was conceived as the opposite of Mitra. She has a talent and a voice, but no ambition to become great and successful. Mitra keeps telling her that she has to believe in herself and become somebody, but Ghada is a good, human, simple woman who doesn’t relate to fame and rich people. She worries about Mitra. I think the relationship between these three women—Mitra, Ghada and Oum Kulthum, who comes to visit Mitra at the end—is very touching. When Mitra has reached the bottom it’s Oum Kulthum who comes to pat her on the back and say, ‘This is what it takes to be a great artist: to fail, to question yourself, to be devastated.’ That’s what I was hoping to build in this triangle. In Women Without Men we had to follow each woman from the beginning to the end, but in this film we felt that Ghada was there to support what was the essence of the character of Mitra. We even had more footage of Ghada, but we cut it, because we felt that it was just too much information.
NOTEBOOK: The last scene seems to present a comparison between two artists, one who’s chosen to observe the popular taste and the other who opts to remain true to her own vision. Which a do you feel reflects your own approach most closely?
NESHAT: The final sequence of the film is an answer to the question that I pursued as the essence of the film. That is: don’t even dare to compare yourself with someone like Oum Kulthum. And this applies to many other artists who see her as a muse. There’s no evidence of failure in Oum Kulthum’s career and her star only continued to rise until she died—this is not the case with me. I have never had the public image and following that she had. The choices that I have made and my life circumstances have caused me very often to bend and fall, and to be criticized. The ending of the film is an attempt to say that every artist on every scale counts and it’s important to stick with your vision. Don’t worry about failing and just do what you’re doing.