At Venice, the myth of Oum Kulthum, iconic diva of song

Iranian Neshat tells of Arab singer and her cosmopolitan society

04 September, 19:03

    VENICE - Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum is being featured at the Venice Film Festival in Iranian artist Shirin Neshat's film "Looking for Oum", co-directed and co-written with Neshat's husband, Iranian filmmaker Shoja Azari.

    At the funeral for Kulthum, who died in 1975 at the age of 76, four million mourners came out to pay their respects to the singer who was an icon in the Arab world and beyond.

    Her intensity and involvement were comparable to beloved national singers on the European stage, such as the French singer Edith Piaf or Italian singer Mina. "Looking for Oum" is a co-production of the Italian company Vivo Film and is competing at the Venice Film Festival in the "Venice Days" section.

    Rather than being a classic biopic, the film is an intimate journey that weaves together the history, doubts, and problems of a modern-day Iranian female director (Neda Rahmanian) working on a film about Oum Kulthum that looks into the mystery of the Egyptian singer, played by Yasmin Raeis.

    Kulthum was very protective of her private life, in which co-director Azari said she was married five times, "even though part of the public thought she was lesbian".

    The singer first publicly supported King Faruk and then the Egyptian nationalist movement of Nasser.

    "In all of my work, I have always told women's stories by crossing them with political happenings, like I did for example in my first film 'Women Without Men', which was about the coup in Iran in 1953," said Neshat, who left her country 40 years ago.

    "Oum Kulthum was always involved in supporting her people, which increased the public's respect for her. She is someone who even today is loved unconditionally, by Arabs as much as by Israelis, by men and women - she's a unique phenomenon," she said.

    Azari said in the film "we show her as the product of a society that was cosmopolitan".

    "It must be remembered that women got the vote in Egypt before many European countries," Azari said.

    "Today the Arab world is perceived as entirely permeated by fundamentalism, but this represents for me, with respect to the very long and complex history of Middle Eastern society, a small phenomenon that won't last. It's a shame that this aspect is spoken about only with respect to the Arab culture".

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