The Tentmakers of Cairo
by Sherif Awad
In Egypt, our notion about Australian cinema is limited to stars like Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Nicole Kidman and films like Australia and the first three Mad Max films that were shot in Aussie land. On the other side of the new world, we can discover that some Aussies are interested in Egyptian society and arts.
Before moving to Cairo, Australian-born filmmaker Kim Beamish completed a Graduate Degree in Film and Television at the Victorian College of Arts in 2001. After working with Melbourne’s Open Channel Co-Op, he realized his long debut Just Punishment that revolved around a drug smuggler who was sentenced to death in Singapore. The feature documentary was aired on the Australian ABC TV, only to be nominated for an ATOM Award in 2007. After joining several projects in Australia, Beamish moved to Cairo in the year 2012 when his wife, who works for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, was transferred to Egypt for a following three year period.
However, the story behind the premise of The Tentmakers of Cairo goes back before Kim Beamish’s move to Egypt. “During my work in Australia, I was introduced to Dr. Robert Bowker, a specialist on Middle East and Islamic issues at Australian National University who was once the Ambassador to Egypt from 2005 to 2008)”, revealed Beamish. “I was asking him about stories and people he might know so his words and memories introduced me to the tentmakers of Cairo before I even arrive. Moreover, his wife Jenny Bowker, who is a visual artist and quilter moving back and forth between Cairo and Canberra, took me to Bab Zuweila and El-Khayameya Street where all the tentmakers work. It was only three days after I arrived with my wife in Cairo… Jenny has been working and building up a good friendship with them for eight years… They even call her Omm El-Khayameya or The Mother of Tentmakers”.
To gain the confidence of tentmakers, Beamish went to visit them and spent some time at their shops without a camera. During the following visits, the filmmaker started to bring his photographic camera then his video camera in order to shoot the documentary. Each of the Tentmaker's shops opens out onto the street like a cocoon of color bursting in contradiction to the dust and dirt of the street. The men sit on long benches in the doorway, one foot protruding from underneath a large piece of yellow canvas, a plank of plywood acting as a backrest. Each hunched over, quickly placing accurate stitches into ornate Islamic designs easily found in the mosques and ancient buildings that inhabit the surrounding area. “The three main protagonists of the film are Hossam, his brother Ekramy, and two stitchers Hany and Tarek”, explained Beamish who was interested to tell stories of Egyptian and their struggle to make a safe passage with their works and family in the aftermath of January 25 Revolution.
“I did not ask for the services of a music composer because I wanted to make the audience captivated by the normal noise of the streets of Cairo”, revealed the director. “Usually music can drive the emotions of film audience to one unidirectional way which is something I did not want”.
Not only Jenny Bowker was influenced by The Tentmakers of Cairo, some Egyptian artist like Moataz Nasr featured Khayamiya-inspired aspects in his contemporary mixed-media artwork. Susan Hefuna's installation "I Love Egypt!", featured in the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012) also applied Khayamiya within the context of contemporary installation art. From 2009, the Egyptian artist Hani el-Masri collaborated with the Tentmakers to produce a 5m x 8m interpretation of the One Thousand and One Nights. These artists could be the stars of a sequel to Beamish’s film either he will do it or not.
Kim Beamish submitted his documentary to a lot of festivals and recently he was has been invited to screen at one of the world's most prestigious documentary film festivals: the prestigious Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland this April.