Tag Archives: The Tentmakers of Cairo

Kim Beamish, filmmaker

Kim Beamish on the other side of the camera Photo: Melissa Adams Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Jane Freebury

The Circle’s winter conversations for 2017 wound up with another filmmaker in the guest chair. Kim Beamish, director and producer at Non’D’Script Films, now Canberra- based, who has received international recognition for his documentary work.

His film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, was joint winner of the prestigious Margaret Mead award for documentary film in 2015. It also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll at Visions du Réel, and the El-Ray Award for narrative documentary excellence at the Barcelona Film Festival.

Kim, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and has a degree in digital arts from the Australian National University, took us on a quick tour of his varied professional background. It includes work in media production for universities and government departments, at Bearcage Productions, long-term volunteering with community television—and a stint in the kitchen at a famous Sydney restaurant.

He came to Canberra after his wife landed a job in the public service. A typical Canberra story, quipped Helen.

In the media area, Kim has been involved in productions featuring a number of identities including artist John Olsen, actor Lexi Sekuless, and the late Betty Churcher. He is currently teaching again at University of Canberra.

At the start of our discussion, Kim explained his aesthetic preferences. The type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. His preference is for the observational approach that allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input from the filmmakers, either on set or in post-production.

Verité or actuality is the approach he uses in his forthcoming film, Oyster, a doco set in a family of oyster farmers based on the far south coast of NSW. It observes their way of life and work and how they are dealing with the impact of climate change on the environment at Merimbula Lake. The human dimension of the impact of great change.

For now, Kim is best known for The Tentmakers of Cairo, the documentary he made about the small community of male artisans, known as tentmakers, who stitch traditional cloths that have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times. There is no voice of god voiceover nor music introduced to guide viewer responses. The music that can be heard is already playing on set or nearby. The emphasis on ambient sound in the covered market in Old Cairo where the tentmakers work is highly immersive.

Kim explained the serendipity involved in The Tentmakers. It was made in Egypt during the early stages of the ‘Arab spring’, beginning in 2011 when he accompanied his wife and young family on a 3-year posting. Kim knew he wanted to record some aspect of the tumultuous events taking place in Egypt, but just wasn’t quite sure what or how to go about it. At that point, no one knew what direction events would take either.

Initially he had wanted to work with Egyptian filmmakers, but found they weren’t interested in documentary.

We were keen to hear how he had managed to film in Cairo during such a turbulent time. After he was introduced to the tentmaker community by quilt expert Jenny Bowker, Kim immediately developed a strong rapport with the subjects of his film. It was Jenny, a Cairo resident and wife of a former ambassador to Egypt, who was his first key contact.

Kim’s status was then confirmed with a walk through the market neighbourhood in the company of a prominent member of the tentmaker community. A demonstration that the young stranger at the side of the ‘elder’ was a welcome guest to be protected.

Kim had to find his way around Cairo with Arabic that was minimal at best – ‘shway’ – and no guarantee of entrée. Moreover, brandishing a cinematographic camera without journalistic or other accreditation, Kim could have landed himself in trouble. Every journalist he knew had had their camera smashed, he said.

Despite the risks, the production proceeded to post. The Tentmakers of Cairo premiered at the Canberra International Film Festival in 2015, and it has been screened in Egypt.

One of the virtues of observational doco style, we all agreed, is that it is open to a variety of readings.

Finally, Kim talked briefly about his first documentary feature, Just Punishment, ‘a film about life and death’, the case of the Australian Van Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005 for drug trafficking. The production, involving three years back and forth between Singapore and Australia, was an experience that still troubles Kim, who has remained close to the man’s mother.

He did not have the same level of creative control over this first film either, and it is observational only in part. His new film Oyster, is thoroughly in the observational mode, however.

It was particularly interesting to hear how Kim worked as an independent filmmaker, how he obtained funding in the development stages of production and received ongoing support. We were impressed by Kim’s openness and by his dedication to the integrity of his craft.

Oyster, which Kim is making with veteran filmmaker Pat Fiske, will premiere at the CIFF this year.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Tentmakers of Cairo

Published in the Canberra Times on 26 March 2016 at:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/canberra-filmmakers-the-tentmakers-of-cairo-shows-artisans-during-arab-spring-20160322-gnoebd.html

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© Jane Freebury

Something tells me that the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead would have enjoyed hearing that a documentary award in her name had gone to a film about men who sew. Mead became famous in the 1920s-30s for her books based on research in Oceania supporting the view that gender behaviour, including the work that men and women do, is culturally determined.

Needlework is a craft that we might tend to associate with women. However, a group of male artisans in Cairo known as the tentmakers have been stitching fabulously detailed cloth in traditional arabesque and geometrical patterns and lotus and papyrus designs for generations, handing down their skills from father to son. Evidence suggests that these traditional cloths have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times.

Historically, the decorative khayamiya textiles formed part of capacious pavilions or ‘travelling palaces’ seen across the Arab world. Today they are still conspicuous in daily life as celebratory backdrops at events like weddings, graduations, feasts, receptions and funerals.

In 2015, the American Museum of Natural History announced that Canberra filmmaker Kim Beamish had won the Margaret Mead Film festival  for The Tentmakers of Cairo. He shared the prize with Iiris Harma, director of Leaving Africa: A story of friendship and empowerment. Last year The Tentmakers also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll prize at Visions du Réel, Switzerland, and the El Ray Award for Excellence in Documentary Narrative Filmmaking at the Barcelona Film Festival. And it screened at the Canberra International Film Festival as well.

Beamish and his young family arrived in Cairo in January 2011 when his wife took up a position there. He was introduced to the tentmakers and found himself so taken with them and their work that he began to film. He soon realised that politics and current affairs was just about all they talked about, with huge demonstrations erupting in Tahrir Square, and continued to film them over the next three years.

The tentmakers ply their craft in a covered market, Chareh El Kiamiah, in the Old Islamic area of the city, a destination that has found its way onto the itinerary of the intrepid international visitor. The men hand-stitch colourful appliqué onto backing cloths at lightning speed, wielding large needles and a hefty pair of tailor’s shears. Thimbles are worn and that’s about it for tools of trade. Sewing machines are only used in order to join large panels together.

TheTentmakersOfCairo poster 2

Beamish had found himself in Egypt at a liminal moment, when events that became known as the ‘Arab spring’ were taking place. The microcosm of Egyptian life that he observed within the covered souk near the old city gate of Bab Zuweila was inevitably swept up in it. ‘What is the world coming to?’ someone asks.

The filmmaker has used an observational or verité style, letting his subjects tell their story in their own words as he maintains a minimal presence. It is beautifully constructed and persuasive viewing even though there is no explanatory voiceover, no music except at the final credits. The images are accompanied by the rich ambient sound recorded on location.

The tentmakers are observed going about their daily routine: the coffee and cigarette breaks, the conversation as they work, most often about what is being reported on television, always on as they work, and the delicate art of making a sale. In no time at all, we develop a sense of the distinct personalities of the five artisans the film follows and how they stand on things.

The film narrative itself begins in 2012, after civil unrest had seen the demise or Hosni Mubarak and when it looks like Mohamed Morsi could be installed as president. It closes with the election of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in 2014, a point which happened to provide a kind of closure and coincided with the moment that Beamish and his family returned home.

On occasion, we step outside to negotiate our way through the winding alleys. Past the cyclist who works a fresh bread delivery service, loaves balanced on a wide rack on his head, past the men sharing a hookah at the street corner and other intriguing views in the barely contained chaos of an Egyptian street. When things are really hotting up, we spend a stint in Tahrir Square.

At one point, the film follows two of the men on a trip overseas. Hosam and Tarek were invited to demonstrate their skills at an American Quilter’s Society exhibition in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, reflecting the close association that has developed between the tentmakers of Cairo and international quilters societies, and the parallels between both practices. In recent years, there have been visits to Australia as well, Canberra included, as guests of quilters societies here.

The Tentmakers of Cairo is a subtle and thoroughly engaging doco account of the tentmakers from their own point-of-view. Without voiceover and with few intertitles only at top and tail, it allows the men to tell their story virtually unmediated, and it’s fascinating. Director and producer Beamish made his film in collaboration with an entity called Non’D’Script. It’s a light touch that says it all.