Looking for Oum Kulthum, a new film revolving around the life and work of the renowned Egyptian singer-actress and Arab icon, had its world premiere on the 7th edition of the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month. Directed by New York-based Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat, the film is one of 12 productions from around the world that was selected to compete for the official awards.
The 90-minute production, which features dialogue in English, Arabic and Farsi, is not a typical biopic but is rather centered on the experiences of “an Iranian woman filmmaker, living in exile, who dares to make a film about an iconic Arab singer without being Arabic herself,” the director herself explained in an interview. Nashat said she was intrigued by the life and character of Oum Kulthum, since, “as a Muslim woman artist, [she] was able to transcend all sexual, religious, political, and national barriers and expectations, and became the single most significant Middle Eastern artist of the 20th century.”
Exploring the plight of the “Star of the East,” as Oum Kulthum came to be called, to achieve success in a male-dominated society and media industry in the early-to-mid-20th century, the struggles of one of the main characters, Mitra, who embarks upon making the film about Ms. Kulthum, are enmeshed with those of the singer’s. This “film within a film” tells the story of the sacrifices and efforts that Mitra, an Iranian filmmaker in exile, has to face when daring to cross the lines of a conservative culture.
Starring Iranian Neda Rahmanian and Palestinian-Egyptian Yasmine Raeis, the film was shot in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Morocco but is set in Egypt.
Commenting on the new film, Nashat says “For the past twenty years, as a visual artist and a filmmaker, I have explored diverse concepts and narratives in relation to Muslim women. In 2009, I directed my first feature film ‘Women Without Men,’ based on a magical realist novel written by the Iranian female author, Shahrnush Parsipur.”
The feature film “Women Without Men” won a Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2009. The director has won several other awards, including an Art Biennale award in 1999 for the video artworks Turbulent and Rapture.
With modest origins, having been born in the village of Tamay el-Zahayra in the Nile Delta, Oum Kulthum learned how to sing early in life and soon came to prove her extraordinary vocal talent. Her father, an imam, allegedly taught her to memorize the Quran in its entirety and asked her to join the family ensemble when he discovered his daughter’s singing talents. Oum Kulthum gained prominence in the 1920s and 30s and recognized as one of the Arab world’s most gifted singers.