BEIRUT: Anyone following political news from the MENA region in the past decade or more may have stumbled upon the odd story about Iranian influence in the Arab world. Those among this small demographic may find it amusing to watch “Looking for Oum Kulthum” – though the film more or less ignores the nuances of contemporary geopolitics and is itself humorless.
Co-written and directed by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat with Shoja Azari (her collaborator in “Women Without Men,” her 2009 feature film debut), “Oum Kulthum” is a biopic about the eponymous Egyptian vocalist.
Born to a poor rural family, Oum Kulthum (1904-1975) so impressed her relatives with the timbre and power of her voice, it’s said, that they disguised her as a boy so she could perform in public. From these modest roots, she rose in stature to perform before Farouq, the last of Egypt’s khedivial dynasty. Such was her popularity among all classes that the Free Officers regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which overthrew Farouq in 1952, also embraced her.
“Oum Kulthum” is less interested in a documentary-style depiction of the performer’s life and career than in harnessing her to Neshat’s aesthetic-political preoccupations.
The movie begins with a search. The camera follows a female figure through a historic household interior. Its perspective is that of another woman, eventually introduced as Mitra (Neda Rahmanian), an Iranian filmmaker working on an Oum Kulthum biopic.
Following the figure to the top of the stairs, Mitra finds her sitting in a bedroom with a little girl. Mitra follows the girl back through the window curtains, which open upon an oriental tableau of dirt poor villagers, acrobats, musicians and belly dancers. An adult discreetly dresses the little girl in boys’ clothes and sends her onstage.
This is one of several dreamlike reveries into which Mitra falls while preparing her film.
During the casting call, she and her assistant director Amir (Mehdi Moinzadeh) meet Ghada (Yasmin Raeis), a young schoolteacher whose friends have coaxed her to audition. She’s perfect for the part of Oum Kulthum, of course, so Mitra and Amir track her down at her elementary school, where her remarkable voice is complemented by unusual modesty.
She’s also perceptive. Some cast members – notably Ahmad (Kais Nashif), the actor who’s apparently playing Ahmad Fouad Negm, the poet who was Shaykh Imam’s principal lyricist – sneer at Mitra’s shortcomings. Not only is she a foreigner without Arabic, making her incapable of really understanding her subject, Ahmad points out that she’s also a woman!
Ghada alone seems to detect the anxiety roiling within Mitra – her guilt at having not seen her young son in her eight years of exile from Iran.
With file footage from the period of Farouq and the early years of Egypt’s Free Officers regime – mingled with black-and-white recreations that turn out to be Mitra’s rushes – Western audiences innocent of the performer’s existence are briefed on Oum Kulthum’s unique profile in a period of then-extraordinary turbulence.
The story proceeds in this fashion until the crew reaches film’s final sequence, and the highlight of the performer’s career – Oum Kulthum’s 1965 performance before an audience that included Abdel-Nasser himself.
In one of those moments that may be narrated as creative epiphany or emotional collapse, Mitra decides to defy Amir, her Arab cast and her European producers in rewriting, and reshooting this final sequence.
Long before the New York-based Neshat followed the not-uncommon drift from photography and electronic art to cinema, she was a feted visual artist, whose awards include the international prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale.
Like her visual art, Neshat’s film work has tended to reflect her positioning as a Western-trained feminist intellectual and dissident to Iran’s Islamic Republic, though some Western critics suggest that her choices in depicting Iranian-Muslim femininity express a sort of internalized Orientialism.
With “Oum Kulthum” the filmmaker is interested in underlining parallels between Mitra, the artist, and Oum Kulthum, her subject.
One scene in Mitra’s film shows a young Oum Kulthum standing before a mixed theater audience, silent, until Ahmad’s character goads her into singing, saying, “Don’t make us wait. Sing for us!” (Such sequences remind viewers that cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, who shot “Women Without Men,” has returned to DP this film.)
Later, after the director walks off set because Ahmad has improvised some of his lines, a perplexed Amir finds Mitra and asks, “What are you doing? Everyone’s waiting for you.”
(If Ahmad’s role in Mitra’s film is to encourage Oum Kulthum to remember the common people, Amir’s role in Neshat’s movie is to urge Mitra to make the film that her cast and producers want.)
Mitra argues that, contrary to what Ghada and so many Egyptians believe about Oum Kulthum’s persistent loyalty to her family and to Egypt’s poor, she must depict a character that chooses to leave her roots and embrace the life of the country’s elite. The film’s efforts to have one strong-willed artist (Oum Kulthum) mirror another (Mitra) grow less discreet as the film approaches its 90-minute mark.
This sort of clockwork narrative is not without its pleasures. As it moves forward, “Oum Kulthum” may remind some of older titles that take up the challenges of retooling nonfiction stories for cinema.
While Neshat’s efforts to engineer Mitra’s narrative equivalence to that of Oum Kulthum, and vice versa, clearly do emulate past film-within-a-film (or play-within-a-film) tropes – like those Spike Jonze deploys in his 2002 genre experiment “Adaptation” – “adaptation” itself isn’t her subject.
Neshat’s real interest is with the contemporary question of powerful women’s relationship with patriarchy – here, the artist’s relationship to the state.
It’s challenging to see the kohl-eyed Mitra as anything but a stand-in for Neshat herself.
Arguably, “Oum Kulthum” is less about its nominal character than it is the dissident artist/filmmaker’s relationship with her own practice and country.
It is intriguing to think about how to disentangle Egypt’s best-known musical icon from the mythology that enshrouds her. Ultimately, however, Neshat’s ruminations lead her to ask her subject, “Why couldn’t you be more like me?”
The filmmaker is aware of how this sounds, of course. Presumably that explains the film’s last two words of dialogue.
“Looking for Oum Kulthum” is up at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil through Jan. 17.