Before Beyoncé, There Was Oum Kulthum

Shirin Neshat in film and in person at the Parrish
A still image from “Looking for Oum Kulthum” Razor Film 3

If there’s one concept Shirin Neshat, the New York-based Iranian photographer and visual artist, seems to understand, it’s that the world is made of opposing points of view. East and West. Male and female. Reality and fiction.

Best known for her provocative series of black-and-white photographs called “Women of Allah,” produced between 1993 and 1997, as well as highly conceptual video installations, Ms. Neshat segued into filmmaking in the early 2000s, winning a Cannes Silver Lion in 2009 with her debut feature-length film, “Women Without Men.” Last year she directed her second feature, “Looking for Oum Kulthum,” which was simultaneously lauded at the Venice International Film Festival and panned by Egyptian critics (mostly men) who were incensed that an Iranian director who speaks no Arabic should tackle an Arab language film, and, moreover, one about their country’s greatest treasure.

“Looking for Oum Kulthum” will be screened at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill Friday at 6 p.m. A talkback session with the filmmaker will follow.

Oum Kulthum is indeed the most celebrated female singer in Arab music history. In the 1950s, Egypt’s then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser described her as “the fourth pyramid of Egypt.” Such was her monumental status within that country, second in popularity only to Cleopatra. Hers was a voice — the opera soprano Maria Callas described it as “incomparable” — that transcended geographical and political boundaries across the Arab world, whether rich or poor, religious or not. When she died in 1975, four million people attended her funeral.

On the screen, Ms. Neshat has taken all this vibrant girl-power stuff and turned it into an artful film-within-a-film about an Iranian director named Mitra (played by the arresting Iranian actress Neda Rahmanian), who embarks upon making a movie about the legendary Egyptian diva. Once Mitra finds the perfect lead actresses — Egypt’s Yasmin Raeis plays the young Oum Kulthum — she has to face harsh sociopolitical challenges that are not dissimilar to the ones the real-life singer encountered as a female artist in a male-dominated society (she began her career dressed as a boy). Mitra, who is a mother as well, contends with modern-day prejudices and sexism, expressed by the men around her, who undermine her ability to make such a film. Forty years after the great songstress died, Arab women still live in a chauvinist, conservative, and stifling society, with few concessions made for those, especially mothers, who want to explore their passions. 

All of this parallels Ms. Neshat’s own experiences in making the film. Oum Kulthum, she said, was hugely popular in Iran and Ms. Neshat remembers her parents listening to her music when she was a child. Furthermore, it is widely known that many of her lyrics were translated from the work of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. And yet, when Ms. Neshat launched into the project about seven years ago, intending to make a biopic about the Egyptian singer, she was met with such fierce opposition from the Arab world that she decided to change the direction to a fictionalized story-within-reality structure.

As a result, the filmmaker hovers between verité and metacinema, reality and fiction. Displaying her facility for visual artistry, Ms. Neshat works against narrative conventions by intertwining dreamlike flashbacks, archival footage of Oum Kulthum, re-recordings of her songs, and reconstructions of Egypt’s historical highlights of the time, such as the revolution and feminist activism, together with the story of Mitra and her aforementioned trials and tribulations as she attempts to “show the real human being beyond the myth. . . . A real person with all her flaws and vulnerabilities . . . not just this heroine, this icon.”

“The work goes in and out of relating to political reality, existential and emotional issues, and a larger dialogue of oppression,” Ms. Neshat said about her film during a telephone interview. “But these are all existing universal issues.”

Ms. Neshat left Iran in 1974, at 17, to study art at the University of California at Berkeley. Then came the Iranian revolution in 1979, which installed clerical rule and strict Islamic censorship of the arts. The young artist was forced to remain in America, returning to Iran for the first time in 1990. But fearing for her safety, since she creates highly visible, politically conscious work, she now lives in exile.

“My work is very controversial,” she said. “My work raises questions.” With a hint of wistfulness in her voice, she added, “I miss it. I miss my family . . . but you accept.” Then, quickly perking up again, she explained that her work is viewed in Iran thanks to a robust video piracy business.

She lives in New York with her Iranian husband, Shoja Azari, with whom she collaborated on “Looking for Oum Kulthum,” which was shot in Morocco. She is already working on her third feature, which she described as “timely” and “for the first time, related to America.” The story will feature an Iranian woman living deep in the Midwest, very much an outsider, who connects with people by offering to interpret their dreams. Onboard to help write the script is Jean-Claude Carriere, the 87-year-old French novelist, screenwriter, actor, and Academy Award honoree. 

In 2001, Ms. Neshat was quoted in Time magazine as saying that she is an artist not an activist. Today, she has a more pragmatic view. “When your work is politically charged, politics is inescapable.”

Indeed, “Looking for Oum Kulthum” is as political as it is poetic. It satisfies both the heart and the mind. But, more important, it offers a beautifully composed and (finally!) courteous discourse among people of differing sociopolitical views. 

Tickets are $20 for general admission and $5 for members, children, and students