By Sophie Arni and Ev Zverev
Originally published in GAD Magazine Issue 02 (Fall 2018).
Shirin Neshat, throughout her long career, has been redefining what it means to be a woman artist. From visual arts to film, she provokes an emotional response rather than divisive rhetoric on the gender-segregated realities of her native Iran. Her split-screened video Turbulent (1998) won the First International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999. ‘What power in this video!’, ‘I’ve seen my fair share of art, but this is by far the most powerful experience I ever experienced’ are amongst hundreds of comments below the video, available on Youtube. In 2009 she was awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 66th Venice Film Festival for her directorial debut Women Without Men.
Neshat has received many accolades, but they have not steered the artist away from taking risks and remaining consistently honest in her work. Her latest film is dedicated to Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian singer. Neshat went out of her comfort zone by venturing out in another cultural context. To represent an icon whose story is known to millions across the Middle East was no easy task. Looking for Umm Kulthum is a product of seven years of research and filming. It is, in many ways, an autobiographical film of a woman artist dealing with her ambition and passion for another woman artist.
After screening it at MoMA, Neshat spoke to Ev Zverev and later went on a phone call with Sophie Arni about what success looks like as a woman and how doubt is a necessary part of being an artist.
Sophie Arni: When did you start thinking about directing a film on Umm Kulthum?
Shirin Neshat: I always idealized her. She was a legend I looked up to ever since I was a child in Iran. I was fascinated with how she managed her career and her audience. Her voice united the opposites: Jews and Muslims, poor and rich. She was not only a great artist but a legendary woman too. She did not fit the traditional mold. Her life was so unusual. It’s an incredible story, really.
S.A. Umm Kulthum is an icon. But that also means that many people have strong opinions about her. I’m sure it was challenging to create a new representative figure who crafted her image so well. How did you build up that confidence, or acquired the “creative license” so to speak, to represent your version of Umm Kulthum?
S.N. That’s a good question. I still get criticized by people in the Arab world about it. It is almost impossible to make a pure biography about her and capture the essence of who Umm Kulthum is. In my case, there was no way I could have done it. We don’t speak the same language, so it would have been very difficult to catch all her nuances.
I always said: I’m not doing a biopic. This is not a biographical, historical film. It’s a personal film about my own story looking for her, hence the title Looking For Umm Kulthum. Framing it this way has allowed me to stay very honest. Throughout the film, the audience can follow the filmmaker’s debates with her producers. The people complaining that the director doesn’t speak Arabic, that the film wasn’t supposed to end this way, that the story is historically incorrect: I decided to put this criticism inside the film. The critics become part of my story, of my character’s story.
S.A. It is a film within a film, a filmmaker's film, similar to Federico Fellini's 8½.
S.N. Eight and A Half is a beautiful film. It was hugely influential. I admire Fellini’s imagination. The film shows the separation between fantasy and reality - seen from a filmmaker’s own dreams.
S.A. This film also opened MoMA’s Future is Female screening series. I was wondering if you consider the feminist reading to reduce your intentions as a filmmaker in any way.
S.N. All of my work deals with women. I’m not shy about that. This is a film about what it means to be a woman artist from that part of the world. We see three different women representing three generations, three points of view, three conditions of being an artist: an ultra-successful diva, a young, ambitious filmmaker, and a woman trying to emulate Umm Kulthum. I detail each woman’s desires, expectations, relationship to their art, to motherhood, and the sacrifices they had to make along the way.
S.A. Your film was screened around the world at countless film festivals. Where has it resonated the most? Did you show it in Egypt?
S.N. Yes, the film was screened in Egypt. The film was shocking to Egyptians, and there was an article written about whether or not it was permissible to screen it. People were confused if I was attacking or praising Umm Kulthum.
Recently, I showed the film in Tunisia, and it was a fantastic experience. It was a true Arab audience, and they started to sing along to the soundtrack during the screening. Istanbul was also memorable; the Turkish public resonated a lot with Umm Kulthum’s story. I also showed it in Brooklyn, at the Academy of Music in front of a young and diverse audience: Arabs, Iranians, Egyptians, Americans. The energy was so high, and it provoked the right kind of conversation after the screening. That’s what I can hope for as an artist: that I can open up space for the right conversation.
Ev Zverev: I want to talk about the ending. There are two different endings to this film. First is one in which Umm Kulthum’s song is playing on the radio, showing her legacy shining on. But Mitra [the protagonist] chose a different ending, where the diva loses her voice in front of a live audience. How was the process of picking the right ending?
S.N. The character in the film definitely mirrors my own experience directing this film. The first idea was to end the film with Umm Kulthum as a hero. I supported that idea. But it is inevitable for an artist to suffer. Mitra kept thinking, ‘Umm Kulthum could suffer too.’ She isn’t an indestructible hero; she is also a human being. Mitra surprised her audience like I did when she presented Umm Kulthum losing her voice. The singer never lost her voice at any concert. Even when this happened in a fiction film, people got angry. It’s like Umm Kulthum could never be brought down to this level of humanity.
S.A. Do you think failure is an essential part of artistic success?
S.N. As artists, we are always expected to make masterpieces after masterpieces. This always ends up disappointing people: if you make the same thing, you’re repetitive, and if you change, you’re taking a big risk. Artists, at every level, get criticism. I heard this quote once, and it stuck with me: “Never take rejection too seriously, and never take praise too seriously.”
I’m often wrong about the value of my work: I might think it’s a bad film, but everyone around me feels the opposite. You just have to take criticism and move on with it. Mitra will never be able to please everyone. She is going to fail like all of us do at some point. Doubt is part of the artistic process. The beauty is in doing it anyway and giving it your best.
S.A. What about Umm Kulthum? She seemed indestructible.
S.N. Umm Kulthum worked hard to frame the legacy of her own career. She wanted to be remembered as a household name. And she ended up being that. She was a myth, even when she was alive. There are very few people who could be so stoic and unbreakable.
E.Z. I liked the way you mastered the Q&A after the MoMA screening. There seems to be a similar relationship between Mitra and her male co-director and you and your own co-director. Could you tell us a little more about the collaboration aspect of making this film?
S.N. In the final scene, when Umm Kulthum asks Mitra: “Why did you do that? Why did you make me lose my voice at this important moment of my career?” Mitra answers: “You’re so arrogant.” This was directly taken from a real-life conversation I had with my co-director. We had agreements and disagreements, and I found it funny how that line ended up in the film. It’s true; the filmmaker was arrogant in some ways; she was determined to get her point across. Viewers often get confused by that line, but art mirrors life. I wanted to end the film on the idea of doubt and self-realization.
All images courtesy of the artist, including stills from Shirin Neshat, Looking for Umm Kulthum (2017). Copyright Razor Film.