Canberra filmmaker's The Tentmakers of Cairo shows artisans during Arab Spring
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Canberra filmmaker's The Tentmakers of Cairo shows artisans during Arab Spring

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 and '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.

An evening scene in a Cairo street in The Tentmakers of Cairo.

An evening scene in a Cairo street in The Tentmakers of Cairo.

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 such as weddings, graduations, feasts, receptions and funerals.

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A break during filming of The Tentmakers of Cairo.

A break during filming of The Tentmakers of Cairo.

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 Reel, 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 applique 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.

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 Tentmakers of Cairo follows the tentmakers as they go about their daily routine: the coffee and cigarette breaks and the conversation as they work.

The Tentmakers of Cairo follows the tentmakers as they go about their daily routine: the coffee and cigarette breaks and the conversation as they work.

The filmmaker has used an observational or verite 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 Fattah 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, the focus moves to 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.

The Tentmakers of Cairo will screen at 11am and 7pm on Friday April 1 at Arc Cinema, the National Film and Sound Archive. Filmmaker Kim Beamish will introduce the evening session.

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