Magazine article Variety

Neshat Muses on Her Film's Icon

Magazine article Variety

Neshat Muses on Her Film's Icon

Article excerpt

New york-based Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat won the Venice Silver Lion in 2009 for her debut feature, "Women Without Men," which is set against the backdrop of Iran's turbulent recent history. Her follow-up, "Looking for Oum Kulthum," which will screen in competition in the Venice Days section, is centered on Egyptian singer-actress Umm Kulthum, considered the Arab world's greatest singer. Shirin spoke to Variety about the challenges of tackling a project that encompasses the popular culture of Middle East at large.

A key aspect of "Looking for Umm Kulthum" is that the film's central character was an icon in the Arab world and also in Iran and Israel. Did you set out to create a work that aims to bring the Iranian, Arabic and other Middle East cultures closer together?

Growing up in Iran, I was of course familiar with Umm Kulthum's music, ever since childhood, because her popularity expanded beyond Egypt or the Arab world; she has been known and loved by people from all over the Middle East, including in countries like Israel. I have developed a specific obsession with Umm Kulthum, in how as a Muslim woman artist, she was able to transcend all sexual, religious, political and national barriers and expectations, and become the single most significant Middle Eastern artist of the 20th century. When she died, nearly four million people gathered in the streets of Cairo to mourn her death. This was the second largest funeral in Egyptian history, after President Nasser's. Umm Kulthum's popularity and status as an artist therefore remains a phenomenon, unprecedented even in the West, where no artist, male or female, has ever reached that level of popularity; and especially incomparable to any iconic female Western artists who have often had tragic endings. Therefore the story of Umm Kulthum goes beyond the Arab world; she has become an undeniable symbol for all Muslims across the Middle East. We take pride in her for reinforcing a positive image about our cultures; about our deep relationship to music, poetry and mysticism, especially at a time when we feel so vulnerable in a world that vastly depicts us as barbaric and violent.

I've read that, like all your work, it's very personal, starting with the title, but perhaps also quite political. I believe it was largely shot in Egypt shortly after the Arab Spring. Can you tell me a little about these two aspects of the film: the personal and the political? …

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