Friday December 1st, 2023
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The Tentmakers of Cairo: Documenting a Dying Craft

Australian filmmaker Kim Beamish spent three years immersed in the lives of craftsmen who create colourful fabric for his documentary, The Tentmakers of Cairo. Valentina Primo finds out more about his experience and the dying art of tent-making...

Staff Writer

He realised it’d been three years that he was with them. He had slowly discovered there was so much to tell about this microcosm where a handful of artists struggled to keep an ancient craft alive.

Premiering on April 21 at the prestigious Visions du Reel Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, Kim Beamish’s documentary The Tentmakers of Cairo delves into an ancient art where history, funerals, and the revolution somehow rationally intertwine. Beamish, the Australian filmmaker behind it, shares how the story tells much more about Egypt and the melancholic tale of a dying craft.

How did you get to know about the tentmakers?

I was coming here after the revolution, and like most filmmakers, was more focused on the bigger politics. I had grand ideas of a film which would take place on the streets of Cairo, a mist of tear gas and the sounds of gunfire mixed with fireworks and chants. But then I met them on the second day I was here, and to me, they show the real Egypt in a more authentic way than the one being portrayed in the press. An Australian quilt maker I knew introduced me to them, so we rapidly built trust, which was very important to me. And I spent the next three years there.

What about them made the biggest impact on you?

How the big events have filtered down to them. Everything that happened in the last three years has affected and is visible in their lives. They are average people; they are not out in the streets, but the effects the revolution had on them were huge.

About five years ago, there used to be 500 tentmakers; now they have come down to about 100. Their craft is in fact a dying art – an art which can actually be traced back to Tutankhamen. It is a very real Egyptian art form which has lived through thousands of years adapting to different situations. It is funny how they still call themselves tentmakers, when they don’t really produce tents anymore, but rather more decorative items like cushions or hanging wall decorations.  

We buy their cushions for less than 5 dollars, but what is the one thing you wish people knew about them?

The way it is linked to specific uses; that is unparalleled. Their work has been highly appreciated in places like the USA, but not here, since it has been traditionally used for funerals and to cover buildings, so there is a stigma attached to them. But this is actually its genesis, this is where it comes from, when they used to make beautifully decorated tents and make streets more beautiful. But all around the world, we are always trying to bring down the price without putting too much thought into the people who produce it. Tentmakers can spend up to six months producing the bigger pieces, which are then sold for a couple of hundred bucks.

What did you take away about Egypt and the region, through them?

Adaption. For better or worse, they have flowed with the events. It has stricken me how they adapt to changes very quickly, which is reflective of what goes on in Egypt. Whatever happens, you deal with it and move on, and whether that way of dealing is right or wrong doesn’t matter, you need to just keep on moving. This is what I found out about these guys. One day they can be going this way, and the next one, it changes direction.

It´s microbuses, toktoks, traffic in general; everything just keeps on moving. There’s consequences to that, but let’s be honest, at the end of the day, people need to keep on moving. And this is what I´ve enjoyed the most; seeing how they have been basically through everything and moved on.

How was working with them?

It was pretty easy. Once they got an idea of what I wanted, they ignored me, and that is exactly what I wanted. Because of the lack of common language, they continued with their day and ignored me, which was fantastic because I could just go around with the camera without interacting or asking them questions. I also became very good friends with them, our families have actually travelled together. On that level, it’s been a real trust and commitment, and they’ve invested in the film’s success as much as I have.    

The film is not trying to promote the tentmakers but rather the message of the film is that everyone is involved in what goes on around them, regardless of whether they were at the square to be a part of the revolution. It’s also a message to people outside of Egypt that it is not all fire and stone here; people are living through it, but it’s not in everybody’s background.

Why did you choose to film it over such a long period of time?

It’s a style of filmmaking that I enjoy. I’ve always been good at letting my characters tell the story rather than pushing it towards a particular direction. I prefer to let go, so that kind of longevity allows them to act naturally in front of the camera. I ended up gathering between 250 to 300 hours of footage, which means I have a lot of material that I can use.

I also didn’t want lots of music and interviews; I want the audience to be able to walk into the streets and experience the pace. That’s why there is no music in the film, no voice over or interviews, which leaves most filmmakers surprised. I worked with a sound engineer in Australia so that when an audience elsewhere sits in a cinema, they feel Egypt all around them: cars honking, calls to prayer, sirens, everything just going on all the time.

As we speak, the boat engines on the Nile roar in an attempt to rival the background café music, while a siren stretches a loud shriek from Imbaba all the way across the river. “I was in Australia in December, and it was so quiet. You walk through the heart of Melbourne and it’s like… nothing!” he jokes.

As events in Egypt took unexpected turns in a matter of a few days (when Morsi was overthrown), and changes continued to happen over several months thereafter, especially with regards to a wariness about foreigners, did the attitude of the tentmakers change towards you throughout the three years?

Well, I look like a foreign journalist, I walk with a big camera and a microphone, and if people don’t know me, I can barely get 30 seconds before my shot is ruined and I have people questioning me. But their attitude was different towards me because of the relationship I had built with them. I was careful to let them know that nobody would see what was being filmed until the very end. What I wanted to get across is that I was not here to make a shock piece and leave.

In the film, there is a guy called Sawy, who is a shoemaker. A month after I had started, he walked up to me, held my arm and walked me through the whole area introducing me to everyone. From that day on, there was this connection with everyone, even to a degree that police would not find out about it.

Were you ever stopped by the police?

I would often be filming and someone would come and tap me in the shoulder. Then I would move into another street not knowing why, but all of a sudden I would see a police car around. They kind of looked over me. It was part of that trust that I wasn’t doing anything to degrade Egypt’s name, which is often the claim.

I was even pulled out from an undercover secret police. It was one day, when I was just walking out of the workshop. A policeman came and started questioning me, and I hadn’t had time to pack up my gear so I was doing my routine, but this guy was insisting and grabbed my ID. All of a sudden, everybody came out, surrounded me and him, and started talking. Nobody said anything other than “what’s going on?”, and they basically created this situation where I was incorporated into one crowd and just talk, talk, talk; while he was pushed off into another crowd the opposite way and it just took its own life. And it was the end of it. It’s kind of a mass of people slowly drifting people away; and I think there was a point where he thought “ok, nothing is going on”. So it all took this very organic move away.

The only thing they were particularly insistent to me was that that the film did not go on Al Jazeera. Funny enough, it was the only media that came to me and offered to fund me, but I just had to turn it down – as much as I don’t have a problem with them – but it was the only request they made. They have a complete disdain for them, which reflects the general narrative.

Was there any character that particularly touched you?

There is Akramy, who works in a family shop called El Farouq, who is trying to teach the trade to his 10-year-old son. As you move through the film, you can see how he is initially very engaged in trying to thread needles, an interest that sort of wanes over time, to the point where you see him losing focus and interest. It is kind of a realisation that the son is probably not going to take on Akramy’s craft; he is more interested in playing football or doing other stuff. And interestingly, you can see how his daughter really begins to get interested and how he is really excited about her work, which changes the dynamics because the tentmakers are predominantly a male craft. This is not a part of the documentary, but all these side stories start to come up. There is also a fair amount of conflict that goes on in the story, as they are all practically related.         

How did you fund the film?

I own my own gear, but I didn’t count on any funding but a crowdfunding campaign I did in early on in 2012, which raised $25,000. But I never got any official funding, it was 400 individuals, all of which will have their names.

You can watch the trailer for the film below.

You can find out more about the project here or check out their Facebook page here.  

All photos used courtesy of George Kurian and Laurence Underhill.