Shirin Neshat Merges History And Dreams In ‘Looking For Oum Kulthum’

Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat has narratives and tensions to share, and her upcoming film Looking for Oum Kulthum looks to join her previous work as a bridging between the imagined and the real. The multitalented creator has found success and renown (and, apparently, detractors, as she describes below) in a variety of fields, but it was the photographic series “Women of Allah” which seemed to mark her significant arrival in 1997. The collection depicts Muslim women armed with firearms, illuminated with Arabic script and fearless, often focused gazes directed at the observer; this rare portrayal of the gender elicits an intense and complex response. There is strength there, but also uneasiness, even flux; the series is powerful and, at the time of this writing, even a single copy of the published collection of images on Amazon commands the impressive price of $3,065.99 by resellers.

I often discern a separation between filmmakers and other artists, including video artists. While I don’t really trust this evaluation as proper or apt, the patterns of consumption seem much different; even an art house film appears to invite a different type of attention and accessibility than an installation in a gallery. And if all filmmakers are arguably artists, the opposite is untrue, and the logistics are frequently drastically different.

So I find it interesting that Neshat originally trained as a painter, because an intense amount of care and attention lives in her video work. While she has made numerous short film installations—including Turbulent and other works originally intended to be shown on two screens facing each other—her upcoming feature film is only the second, a follow up to 2009’s Women Without Men. The latter is a bracing, beautiful, and sublime experience, an experimental period piece that takes place during the 1953 coup in Iran, but centers on four different women united in their individual paths towards healing. Dream-like but also soberingly cruel, the imagery is always memorable, and the previews of Looking For Oum Kulthum hint at a sumptuous, yet cerebral and experimental piece of art.

We’re still waiting on an official release date for the film as it pursues American distribution, but check in on its official site for updates. The Iranian wants to sincerely thank Shirin Neshat for candidly sharing her thoughts on the new movie, her past work, and the particulars of her creative approach.

The Iranian: I got the impression that there is a strong sense of duality in your work. I notice this also when I watch the short films you made a number of years ago, earlier in your career. Can you tell me a little bit about your process during the time that you were making these short films?

Shirin Neshat: I think you put your finger on something very central to my work, which is that the concept is always revolving around the notion of opposites. Whether that involves male/female, natural vs. built landscapes, the spiritual vs. the violent, the emotional vs. the political; in a single moment of a photograph, film, or video, there is always a tension that forms between opposites. That is something that I eventually came to understand myself.

For example, if you think about some of my iconic photographs, like “Women of Allah,” which is of women who are militant and holding guns. You have erotic pictures of women which are very erotic and sensual, yet they are very militant. In Turbulent, you have a male singer with an audience, and a woman in an empty theater. The male sings traditional songs, while she sings totally abstract non-traditional guttural music that breaks every law of music, and the camera is stationary on one side, rotating on the other.

Then, in Women Without Men, you have the orchard that was very unworldly and presented the natural landscape. It felt like life after death, but then you came to the city of Tehran which was all based on social realism and historical information, and there’s a road that connects the two.

So there’s always this journey—whether it’s through a frozen image, or a moment—which captures some form of duality. Sometimes it has to do with gender, but it’s not always about gender. It’s very often about the inner world of people versus the external world. It amounts to just an endless amount of concepts that I can think of that suggest that idea of duality.

In terms of the installation, that really added an additional benefit, because Turbulent was projected on two sides and the viewer sat in the middle, and they couldn’t possibly see both at the same time. They had to pick sides, they had to choose; it put them in a very strange physical and psychological space, and they became a participant in the piece. That added to this dimension that I was interested in.

Shirin Neshat

The Iranian: The idea is so powerful, although I feel like this essential effect is sadly lost, watching it on YouTube where I can easily see both images at the same time.

Shirin Neshat: Yes, it’s a very sculptural piece.

The Iranian: Now, in Looking For Oum Kulthum, we’ve arrived at your second feature-length film being released approximately eight years later.

Shirin Neshat: [During that time,] there have been exhibitions and other work, and I also made a trilogy that I’m very happy with, which is called “Dreamers.” [note: this series includes Roja, Sarah, and Illusions and Mirrors] Each of these videos deals with the duality of being in and out of illusion and reality. We shot [Roja and Sarah] in the US with my great cinematographer friend Ghasem Ebrahimian, who is Iranian, and Illusions and Mirrors by the well known Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji. Roja was about a woman who was simultaneously in the US and Iran. I really could continue on endlessly about how ideas of duality have [persisted] in my work.

In Looking For Oum Kulthum you have further investigations into the idea. You have this woman who is an iconic singer, and an Iranian woman who is trying to make a film about her. There are parallels and differences between the two women. The movie then goes in and out of the actual historical film, production of the film, and the dreams that she has, in a multilayered fashion.

But, if I could close the subject of duality—I always feel, myself, that I’m very conflicted. There is the “known person,” the person who walks around the world, exists in the world; there is also person who lives inside, in the things that I imagine and the things that aren’t reality, the things I dream that I put great value in. Being an artist means living often in your imagination.

I’m very interested in touching on realism in a way that helps people understand the sociopolitical and historical information and background that I’m trying to convey. But, then, the surrealism, the other reality, helps create a space that is more timeless, universal; very primal and emotional, having no relationship to realism. So this method of trying to bridge realism and surrealism is central. I can’t imagine making worth that only fixates in realism.

[That being said,] I feel like a lot of these ideas develop without you being conscious of it, it’s not a strategy. After you’ve done the work you then look back and think, “This has been the pattern all along. Everything has concerned duality and the paradoxical.”

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The Iranian: So what’s your original relationship to the singer and subject of your work? How did you get the idea to start this project?

Shirin Neshat: Originally, as young people in Iran, we were conscious of Oum Kulthum; her popularity has transcended even the Arab world. I remember my parents would listen to her, and we were too young to listen to classic Arabic music, but she was an extremely established name.

Later, I would use a lot of music in my film, especially vocalists. When I finished Women Without Men, I was exploring other potential scripts for my film, and someone pointed out the subject of Oum Kulthum and how she was the perfect match for me, mainly because she was such an iconic female artist in the Middle East—perhaps the most important artist of the 20th century, which is quite impressive as a woman, to reach that level considering the time when she lived, which was between 1900 and 1975.

Speaking of duality, Oum Kulthum, on the one hand, was able to move millions of people with her music emotionally, known to throw people into a state of ecstasy, yet she was also extremely stoic and controlled. Her image was that of a very non-traditional woman, in that she never revealed her romantic relationships, never got married with children. She seemed very distant, and yet she provoked the concepts of love and other emotions in her listeners.

Thinking back on it, the person who first suggested it to me was actually the son of Abbas Kiarostami; we were in Amsterdam listening to Oum Kulthum music, and suddenly he said, “That is the film you should make!” My fascination grew from there; she served many purposes [as a subject]. First of all, to show to the Western world that we have such a long rich history of culture, to the point where we even have a woman as the leading artist of the 20th century. And, unlike a lot of western iconic singers, she never did have a decline, she never allowed men to abuse her, but more so dominated them. She became a symbol of unity for people from all over the Middle East, from Iran to Israel to Saudi Arabia, they worshiped her. I took a lot of pride in this, even though I am not Egyptian. I also thought it was interesting how she was able to elevate people emotionally, but revealed so little about herself.

So after many years of considering the story I wanted to tell, I decided that a biopic is not really my style of making films. I have to turn this into a personal form of storytelling. Looking at myself and questioning my own obsessions about Oum Kulthum. [Considering,] why is she so important to me, why am I obsessing about her so much? Then, we decided to bring out some of my experiences in trying to make this film, some of my challenges and failures [as I approach] the impossibility of doing a real biography about her, into this film. The film became a film inside of a film.

The Iranian: From just seeing the few samples that are available online, those two clips, I get the idea that this is more of a post-modern exercise. It seems to hint at being self-referential; something about what I saw in those clips makes me think that it’s also about being an artist.

Shirin Neshat: Yes, exactly, I’m so glad you said that! It’s really a portrait of an artist trying to make a portrait of an artist. And, more importantly, a portrait of a Middle Eastern female artist looking at an iconic Middle Eastern female artist. And, of course, one is a minuscule artist, while the other is the grandest of the century. I think that, like Women Without Men, where we were trying to pursue the plight of each one of the four characters, yet also treat the country of Iran as almost a fifth female character; what I’m trying to say is that, with this film, we’re trying to tell Oum Kulthum’s story, but we’re also trying to speak about more than that. We’re trying to look at Egypt’s modern history, trying to look at a contemporary woman’s challenges, women who didn’t have the freedom Oum Kulthum had to devote everything to her career.

And then, of course, cinematically, we tried to make something that was interesting, and delicately blend in the making of the film with the actual historical film, the archival material with the actor’s imagination and dreams, etc. I know it’s not an easy film and it’s not a perfect film—I can say this myself, because it aims for a lot. Women Without Men had the same problems, it was a novelty, it tried to pioneer its own way of storytelling cinematically and conceptually, but you could also say it was one of a kind.

The Iranian: I don’t think you’re being charitable enough. Women Without Men was powerful and unexpected for me, and aesthetically beautiful. I don’t recall if you have a cinematographer that you frequently use, but aspects reminded me of what I sometimes get when I watch the films of Julian Schnabel (the visual artist who started making movies much later in his career). When I watch his movies I feel like a visual artist is creating and controlling this, and it doesn’t at all feel like a procession of events or uncontrolled images. I felt that way watching Women Without Men.

Shirin Neshat: This film is also very visual, and the same cinematographer shot it. I have to say, though, we’re always in the urban environment, representing Cairo, and we shot it mainly in Morocco, in Casablanca. At the very beginning we spent a little time in the village that she was born, but the majority of the film is in the urban environment, so we don’t have the luxury of the natural landscape. But it’s visually quite stunning. This cinematographer is a gift to work with.

The Iranian: So what’s the status of a wide release for the film?

Shirin Neshat: We’re still looking for distribution, but you’ll be one of the first people we inform!

The Iranian: Is there anything about your work that you feel has been powerfully misunderstood by critics?

Shirin Neshat: To be honest, most of the work that I do is very controversial. Maybe Turbulent is the only one that people didn’t really jump on me for. From the beginning, “Women of Allah,” that was the one that was the most misunderstood, probably because of the lack of knowledge Americans had about the concept. Later, the series became very popular and sold well, and a lot of people wrote about it.

But the truth is, very often, the nature of my work that is not about Western culture, a lot of critics don’t “have a way in,” if they’re trying for a purely artistic or cinematic criticism. It does require some cultural understanding and background in the subject. Not to say that art shouldn’t be above all of that, but in general, I would say that “Women of Allah” was very misunderstood when it came out.

Women Without Men, some people hated it and dismissed it, and some people liked it, loved it. There’s always this question of controversy. I envy artists or filmmakers that many people agree on. Even with this new film I’m almost 100% positive that I’m going to get killed by critics! [laughs] For bearing to make this type of film that is an artist looking at another artist, this style of film. But I keep going! I think controversies don’t seem to stop my career, so that’s a good thing. But, I’ve never been completely embraced in a positive way. It’s always been a mixed response.

I take a lot of risks, first by changing mediums, going from photography to video, making films; I actually just completed an opera. You do that, you take risks, and even within each project you keep changing; obviously, this invites some level of controversy. I am a risk-taker, and I expect that kind of reaction, and I think it’s okay.

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