“Looking For Oum Kulthum” confronts the harsh realities of fame

Photo courtesy of Coop99.

At the Sept. 13th TIFF screening of Looking for Oum Kulthum, the audience heard from the film’s directors Shirin Neshat and Shojat Azari. To the Toronto audience, Neshat said she suspects them to leave feeling rather disappointed; they had probably expected to see a film about Oum Kulthum. But, as Neshat told the TIFF audience, Oum Kulthum “was a myth”–-her true story, whatever it was, simply could not be told.

In some sense, this film is about Oum Kulthum, a legendary Egyptian singer active from the 1920s until her death in 1976. In other ways, however, it is about lessons to be drawn from examining her iconography – the challenges of the artistic process, the difficulties of being a woman in charge and navigating the societal barriers set against your gender, and the price of becoming legendary.

Before I continue, I may need to explain who Oum Kulthum is, particularly for those who are not from the Middle East and North African region. Born Oum Kulthum Ibrahim, but performing as Oum Kulthum (“Mother of Kulthum”), she is known as “Kawkab al-Sharq”, or “Star of the East.” She is considered one of the greatest Arab musicians of modern history, and has remained a paramount cultural symbol in the Middle East and North Africa to this day.

I personally grew up on the sound of Oum Kulthum: her melancholic and spell-binding contralto voice, with a vocal range incomprehensible to listeners to this day. Her songs were these grandiose orchestrations which all seemed to have no end in sight. A typical concert would consist of a small handful of songs, but could last four or five hours. She sang of love and loss with an intensity that could move a theatre of Egypt’s elite to tears, all while she remained stoic and poised.

She rose from humble roots in rural Egypt into a star beyond one’s wildest dreams. She took charge of her own image, music and career at a time and in a society where Egyptian women were still fighting for their basic social and political rights.

She exists to us now as a mythical icon. She was, however, just as much of a mystery back then as she is now. Because of how much Oum Kulthum chose to conceal the details of her private life, the film’s director Neshat said she found it “an impossibility” to try to tell this woman’s story.

Looking For Oum Kulthum captures pivotal moment of the Egyptian artist’s life and music career, but, primarily, it chooses to ask a heavy question: “What is the price a woman pays in her pursuit of greatness?”

It is because of the choice to focus on this question, and the resulting final answer, that I believe audiences can gain more from this film than from a simple Oum Kulthum biopic.

The film has the potential to be an international crowd-pleaser. Audiences will be enthralled by the eyebrow raising “film within a film” setup, and the grand, vivid cinematography. Other elements they will enjoy include a compelling performance of our main character Mitra by Iranian actress Neda Rahmanian, and beautiful but faithful renditions of Oum Kulthum’s music, including the classic Enta Omri.

Set in the present day, the story centres around Mitra, an Iranian filmmaker. She is working on a biographic film about Oum Kulthum, and wrestling with two points of contention as the head of the project. She is an Iranian who does not speak Arabic, telling a story that many feel requires an understanding of the Arabic language and culture. She is also a woman director surrounded by men, some who do not fully respect her leadership. Mitra is also struggling to balance her ambitions for her career with her personal life: her son and husband, whom she has not seen for several years during the process of her work.

As Mitra’s film is being made, we are watching both Oum Kulthum’s journey, as portrayed by Egyptian actress Yasmin Raeis, and Mitra’s journey. It was interesting to watch this parallel play out between the main characters: both are women in love with their work and looking to achieve greatness, struggling against the societal barriers in place for women.

Where Oum Kulthum never seemed distracted from her career by her private life, however, Mitra begins to lose touch with her work as her private life falls apart. She becomes disillusioned with her project, and in some sense with the flawless Oum Kulthum, and sabotages the project. She pushes to add a final sequence into the film, depicting Oum Kulthum failing during one of the most important performances of her career: a concert for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

This sequence is not well-received by her colleagues, who threaten to pull production support. Finally, Mitra decides to leave during the shooting of the final sequence, and does not return. She retires, alone, to her home by the ocean.

In the end, Looking for Oum Kulthum doesn’t dismantle the famed Egyptian singer’s status as an icon. It helps us consider the danger of recognizing anything as iconic. This is not achieved through uncovering a severe flaw or vulnerability in the legendary Egyptian singer. Rather, we come to recognize the part of Oum Kulthum present in every person, like Mitra. The audience is meant to confront the reality that even with hard work, talent and the seizing of opportunities, there is a chance that Oum Kulthum became an icon primarily through sacrifice: of family, romance and her right as a human to be imperfect. In the end, we’re left with one last question: is it worth it?