“I’m very sweet,” Shirin Neshat tells me, “but I’m also very domineering when it comes to my work.” Few who meet Neshat can doubt either part of that sentence. By turns fragile and forceful, Neshat operates these days out of Bushwick, Brooklyn, where she lives in self-imposed exile from her home country of Iran. Her new film, Looking for Oum Kulthum, debuted at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and begins its theatrical run in New York this week.
Oum Kulthum is Neshat’s first film since Women Without Men, which won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2009. Since then, she’s continued to work as a visual artist in photo, video, and film (as she told Artforum in 2015, “I have been unfaithful to any one medium”). Among other projects, she received her first major retrospective at the Detroit Institute of Art in 2013 and directed a trailer for the 2013 Vienna International Film Festival starring Natalie Portman. Neshat’s work has long explored issues of female resilience in the Muslim world; her iconic “Women of Allah” series from the 1990s confronts the viewer with stark images of Neshat herself, gun in hand, skin obscured by a chador and the calligraphic writing of Iranian women poets.
Her new film is a dreamy non-narrative portrait of Oum Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian singer. Few Americans will recognize that name, but in the Arab world Kulthum was a peerless force of 20th century music. She sold more than 80 million records; her fans included Robert Plant, who once said Kulthum’s voice had “blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.” Far from a straight biopic, Looking for Oum Kulthum tells the story of a female Iranian filmmaker (Neda Rahmanian) as she attempts to make a film about Kulthum. Neshat’s feature toggles between the filmmaker’s story, her film-within-a-film, dream sequences, archival footage, and moments of pure surrealist fantasy. Abstract and arresting, the film has few forebears, though one can detect traces of experimental musical portraits like I’m Not There or Miles Ahead.
The film will have its New York debut this Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art’s Future of Film Is Female series, which runs through August 2 and includes features from Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), Gillian Robespierre (Landline) and a shorts program from NoBudge. I spoke with Neshat, a fellow Iranian dwelling in Brooklyn, prior to the film’s run at MoMA. A cheerfully undisciplined interview subject, Neshat takes carefree shots during our talk at fellow artists like Ai Weiwei, Kathryn Bigelow, and Jafar Panahi. Below she shares her thoughts on the #MeToo movement, balancing her roles as filmmaker and mother, and the film’s unlikely genesis (it involves smoking hash in Amsterdam with Abbas Kiarostami’s son).
So how long has Looking for Oum Kulthum been a part of your life?
Too long. We started in December of 2010, if you can imagine. I was always working on it, but I was of course also working on art exhibitions. There were many moments where I felt that it would never happen. Artistically, we began with a biopic script, and after three years we changed the whole direction of the film. I had a meeting Jean-Claude Carrière, and he said, “I think you’re making a big mistake.” Anyway, they’re very boring – biopics. You have to bring it to today. That started the discussion “Why don’t you ask yourself why you’re so obsessed with Oum Kulthum?” So I thought why don’t I make the film more about my experience and how difficult it is to make this film.
And how long have you been a fan of her music?
I have to be honest. When I grew up in Iran, my parents listened to her music the way you probably think about classical music. As young people, we tend to go for the more pop music. But I knew about her. It was really funny, I was in Amsterdam for Women Without Men in 2010 with Bahman Kiarostami, the son of Abbas Kiarostami, who also had a film at the Amsterdam festival. One night we were smoking hash and drinking wine and listening to Fairuz and Oum Kulthum. He looked at me and said, “You need to make a film about Oum Kulthum!”
Wait, the movie came about from you smoking hash with Kiarostami’s son?
And listening to her music! It was really odd, and I never saw him again. But then slowly I thought, “You know, maybe I should read up about her. She’s an untraditional woman, an interesting subject.” So we went to Cairo with some Egyptians who helped us meet experts on Oum Kulthum. We went to the village where she lived, we met her family, her adopted son, her cousin. We went three times because we were thinking we would shoot in Egypt, but after the Arab Spring it was just impossible.
So you wrote the script as a straight biopic. How much of that script is still in the final film?
In the original biopic, we wanted to focus on two periods: When she lived under the monarchy of King Farouk, and when she was older when [Gamal Abdel] Nasser was in power. There’s a lot of conversation about how she used people in power and how they used her. There’s also the fact that she’s known to be gay; her sexuality was very obscure. The poet who wrote for her was absolutely in love with her. She lead him on – that’s what people say – so there was an incredible amount of longing and love. Our story was a lot about her relationships to these men that worked with her. In a way she was surrounded by and used men, but she was gay – she loved women. So in the end, that biopic is the film that the Iranian filmmaker character is trying to make.
What were some visual references you had in mind for the project?
I looked at other films that have films inside of a film. 8 ½ is a great example. I love the way that Fellini was able to integrate dreams, fantasies, and the reality of the production. Our film begins with, I don’t even know – is it a dream, is it a fantasy, is it surreal? The transitions were very interesting to think about. It could have been just really disorienting and confusing, or it could’ve been beautiful. I think we did a pretty good job. These kinds of untraditional films are never going to be huge. I think there is a small audience for it. It’s full of flaws, but it’s quite original.
Did you draw upon your experiences making Women Without Men for the Iranian filmmaker character in the film?
Ever since I started to make videos, I have been working with a team of Iranian people – all men. I always find that the females are the actors, but the people making the films are all men. I’m a mother, and when we were shooting Women Without Men it was really painful because I was a single mother. [My son] was always alone, and I felt really bad because I had to ask friends to take care of him. I often really felt distracted. My collaborators, they’re all married and have kids. They just leave the kids with the wife, they have affairs the whole time. So that was brought into Oum Kulthum: both being surrounded by men and also the fact that being a mother and being a 100% dedicated filmmaker is very difficult.
In the film the female filmmaker encounters sexism from the producers and one of the actors. How much are you drawing from your own experiences here?
I feel, if I could be honest, discriminated somewhat in the western film world. In terms of festivals or distributors, with a female narrative such as this, I think they don’t feel like they can embrace this sort of film because they don’t believe there’s enough interest in them, especially if it’s not a western story. There aren’t a lot of people who are willing to put us in the forefront. Whereas, if you’re from Israel and making a film about soldiers and guilt, that always does really well. Or if you’re Jafar Panahi, who takes an Iranian story and adds this twist that is very interesting. I do a very artistic type of filmmaking with a real female voice. It’s not often very embraced. They don’t know what to do with it.
I’m curious about your thoughts on the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. How do you think the issues faced by women artists in America compare to those faced by women artists in countries like Iran or Egypt?
I have to say, part of me thinks it’s really great that this whole thing came up. The fact that people have been holding back these horrible truths about major people with all the power, it’s amazing. They deserve it, but I think we are going overboard as well. It’s destroying a lot of people’s careers. I know some of them, and they really are not guilty so much. I think this is an overreaction, and it’s become like a trend. I support it, and I think it will do some good. At the same time, I think it’s going overboard with certain characters I don’t want to name. If you look at Iranian, Egyptian, or Palestinian society, there are so many women directors. They are so encouraged. Look at Iran – there’s such an audience for their films, and they do well. It’s very odd that for countries that are supposed to be repressive when it comes to women, they’re much more vocal and confrontational. If you go to an Arabic film festival, you see a lot of Arab women there. I think it’s really been western culture that’s been cautious about the female narrative.
Or maybe they think it’s a bigger risk for them to invest in women-made films?
I think so. You see women as main characters, but it’s directed by men. Of course then you have Kathryn Bigelow, who’s a woman but her films don’t even have women in them! [Laughs.] She’s very successful, because [her films] are all about men. In my case, my artwork has always been about women.
I haven’t been able to visit Iran since 2004, which often makes me wonder how much I really know about everyday life there. Do you ever have a similar feeling?
To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward making a film that isn’t about Iran. I reached a point after 2009 with the Green Movement, when I was sure that I wasn’t going to go back, that I just felt like why would I continue to make work about Iran? I subconsciously had this urge to move on, to cut out that feeling of nostalgia. Obviously people in Iran are always in touch with me, my family lives there, but somehow I just want to get over this. So now I feel a lot better about it. People say, “You have no idea what you’re missing, it’s so interesting.” It is, it sounds fascinating, but what can I do? I can’t go back. Am I going to sit around and feel sorry? You can go back, I’m sure.
But there’s the issue of mandatory military service.
Oh, then don’t go. It’s not worth it to mess around with the Iranian government.
So my parents tell me. [Laughs.] I’ve heard people argue that negative depictions of Iran only help to reinforce western viewers’ impressions of the country. This is an argument I’ve heard against Women Without Men. How do you respond to an argument like that?
In Women Without Men, those characters are very allegorical. Some of them are not even real; they die and resurrect. You can’t discuss them in a purely realistic way. I took Shahrnush Parsipur’s female characters and tried to make them into mine. Every one of those women was extremely rebellious. Every one of them turned their back on difficult times and went off to that orchard to live their own life. They were not at all passive. I don’t see how this can be anything but positive. So I don’t understand that criticism. These people were tough. They could have stayed where they were forever, like most women do. But they didn’t, and that’s the nature of all my characters. They’re outcasts, they’re rebellious. Every video, everything I’ve ever done is about rebellion and not standing stagnated.
I remember reading this type of argument against Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Oh my god, people really destroyed [Azar Nafisi].
I often think about distribution when it comes to this issue. Do you think stories of Middle Eastern oppression are the ones we see in the west because they’re the stories that attract distributors and publishers?
I always criticize films that reiterate the cliche. I’m upset sometimes with Ai Weiwei in using this idea of repression in a very scandalous way, to make money and success out of it. Even Jafar Panahi, to be honest, he gets on my nerves. And even Asghar Farhadi with these moral thrillers. I am a complete “fictional” person. You could never, ever take my work down to the realm of truth. It just doesn’t gel. I’m interested in women’s oppression in my photographs and videos, but what I’m really interested in is what happens to women once they’re like that. I take off from this point of hardship, but I always show how the crisis makes you discover your own strength. This is how I see women in Iran. I think the next president should be an Iranian woman [laughs].
So can you tell me about your next film?
I’m really excited. I’ve never done a funny movie. I’m working with Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s about Iranian people spying on American people’s dreams. It’s about a girl who lives in a poor town somewhere in the middle of America. She goes to work every day as a census worker. The people are working-class or poor – all Republicans. She ends her questions with, “And what was your last dream?” very casually. Whoever tells her a dream, she writes it down and says, “I have to take your photograph.” Then she goes back to her office, she gives back the documents, but she keeps the photos and the dreams. She heads back on the same highway, but then the landscape becomes more Middle Eastern. In the middle of the desert we see this high fortress. It looks like a refugee camp. Inside there are all these Iranian people, and the walls are covered with American people’s photographs. And she brings the dreams. It’s a room of dream interpretations, and she’s the dream catcher. She’s a spy.