Looking for Oum Kulthum, a feature film focused on Egyptian icon Oum Kulthum, who is considered the Arab world’s greatest singer, made its Venice Film Festival screen debut earlier this year and has since captured attentive across the globe. As Kulthum’s birthday is just around the corner (Dec 30th), we recount our exclusive interview with the film’s costume designer and celebrate the local talents who worked on set, deserving of the international stage.
Directed by New York-based, Iranian director and visual artist Shirin Neshat, the movie is not a biopic per se, but a film based loosely on the experiences of “an Iranian woman filmmaker, living in exile, who dares to make a film about an iconic Arab singer without being Arabic herself,” Neshat explained in her first interview about the project.
Starring Neda Rahmanian, Yasmin Raeis, and Mehdi Moinzadeh, the film, which was shot in Morocco and Austria, is set in early 20th century Egypt. More specifically, from the 1910s to 1965 – the period just before Kulthum rose from poverty and obscurity into worldwide fame, up until 10 years before her death at the age of 76.
Beyond the stellar casting and empowering narrative, the movie also lures viewers in with incredible fashion. For the clothes, Neshat enlisted Italian costume designer Mariano Tufano, who specializes in period film. Tufano, whose CV includes The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), met Neshat at Berlinale two years ago.
The designer was propositioned to prepare period ensembles for not only the character of Oum Kulthum, but hundreds of extras. He was given a mere eight weeks to do it. He researched all kinds of images before he began sketching. “I started by looking at old images of Egypt, from the 1930s. I watched old Oum Kulthum concerts and archival Egyptian films for inspiration,” he tells Vogue Arabia. His visions for the costumes began to take shape after the initial meeting with Neshat. “Shirin described each major period scene with great detail and accuracy. It was a joy working with her,” he explains.
The challenge, he says, was to design more than 350 outfits from six different decades. But each reference was intimate. For instance, the gold embroidered Egyptian dignitary outfit Kulthum wore during a private concert for King Farouk I of Egypt, who, in 1944, decorated her with the highest level of orders (Nishan al-Kamal), an honor reserved for members of the royal family. “This is my favorite outfit,” recalls the costume designer. “It was inspired by a 1940s Balenciaga dress, and was made out of hundreds of gold silk threads sewn onto black tulle.”
While most of the clothes were custom-made in Tufano’s Casablanca workshops, there were hordes of extras who needed ensembles too. The costume designer and his staff collected their images of old Egypt, and traversed around London, Rome, and Marrakech for shoes, accessories, and jewelry. Tufano sought assistance from Gerardo Sacco, a popular Italian jeweler, to help recreate the unique diamond earrings Kulthum was known to sport.
Though he’s been working on costume design for two decades, this project was quite unlike anything he had done before. “When I first met with Shirin, she said to me, ‘Dressing Oum Kulthum, the biggest Eastern star, is the dream of every costume designer,’” he recalls. “She was right.”
Looking for Oum Kulthum played at the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Venice Days from August 30 to September 9.