Q&A: The Tentmakers of Cairo

Lawrence Underhill 2013.

Lawrence Underhill 2013.

For three years, film-maker Kim Beamish hung out with the tent-makers in the Khaimiya district of Cairo. Three turbulent years, spanning the aftermath of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Mohamed Morsi, and the protests and coup that led to the presidency of military leader Abdel Fattah El Sisi. In Beamish' film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, all of this unfolds in the background -- most often, on a TV screen.  Although their contempt for the Muslim Brothers is palpable and their relief at the ascendancy of a strongman who can restore order is clear, the men in the alley focus largely on thei craft and their business. This is a movie in which very little happens, whose highlights are snippets of overheard conversation (my personal favorite is a father yelling at his young son, while the usual nationalist anthems blare on the TV: "Put down that book and watch TV! Don't you love your country?"). The ease with which these middle-aged, reasonable, well-intentioned men can be down to earth and funny, and then repeat silly rumors or put forth nonsensical arguments, is quite dispiriting. And as the film patiently documents their largely non-eventful lives, some may hanker for a bit more narrative, a bit more drama. But for those who are interested in what the January 25 uprising felt like to the majority in Egypt who watched anxiously and rather suspiciously on the side lines, this understated film offers many insights. 

The film will have its world premiere this Tuesday, 21 April in Nyon, Switzerland at the Visions du Reel Film Festival. Beamish is also hoping to organize screenings in Cairo in June or July. What follows is an email conversation between Beamish and myself. 

The Arabist: How did you end up in Cairo and focus on the Khaimiya neighborhood in the first place?

Kim Beamish: I came to Cairo with my wife and kids after she had taken a job here. I had initially been very keen to look at something a little more "frontline," shall we say. Something with a bit more of the revolution in the foreground, and I was excited by what I might find. However I have always been interested in the effects these big historical events have on those who have not taken part in them and yet are effected by their outcome, sometimes more than those that have taken part. 

I came across the story of the Khaimiya before I arrived in Egypt when I was speaking with a professor at the Australian National University, Professor Bob Bowker, who had told me about some work his wife had been doing with the Tentmakers. I wasn't all that interested to be honest, it did not fit the "frontline" idea I had in my head. However I felt somehow obliged to keep it in mind and met Jenny Bowker only three days after arriving in Cairo, as she coincidently was also in Cairo for a visit, and she took me to meet the Tentmakers.

Because of the years Jenny had previously spent working with the guys there was a lot of trust already established and I was, on the back of this trust, able to walk straight in and pretty much start filming straight away. I was still not sure but the golden rule is "access, access, access" and I had just got it in buckets.

All of the men in the street, more than just the five characters in the film, let me into their shops, work shops and in several cases their homes. As soon as this started to fall into place I decided to concentrate 100% on the Tentmakers.

You said you didn't speak much Arabic when this project started. Yet many of the footage you use has been chosen because you overhear folks saying particular things. How did the translation/editing process work? (Where you translating all along or at the end; did you translate everything?) How did you select the footage to use in the end?

This was a major issue in regards to production and filming. I really had no Arabic when I started filming, and lets be honest I only have a small smattering of Arabic now.

I had initially started teaching myself through some books and Ahmed, one of the characters, started teaching me for a short while but most of my Arabic was picked up by listening to the guys and just asking questions. Most of them have a little English, enough to talk to tourists, and then it was a lot of back and forth. In the end I think it was because of this lack of a common language that I was able to capture what I did, as it meant that I was not intruding as much on the situation by asking questions or predicting what might come next. 

As I got to know them more I also learnt that they generally talked about the same things almost every day; money, politics, security issues and then the ongoing rivalries of the street. Also there was so much happening outside of the street that they were watching on television I could pretty much work out what they were going to talk about by making sure that I kept up to date with the events of the day. 

In regards to editing I feel upon a young Syrian filmmaker, Ali Sheik Kadr, who found out about my work as he passed by my room in a communal office we shared in Dokki. This was almost at the end of shooting so he had many, many hours of footage to go through but by talking a lot he soon worked out what I wanted as well as finding a lot of scenes I had no idea I had filmed. Ali was really instrumental in getting the film finished and was really on the same wave length when it came to finding what I needed to tell the story.

Almost at the same time I found Jason Reeder, an American who was studying translation at the American University in Cairo and so between Ali and Jason we were able to translate and subtitle all of the footage we needed.

Were there particular works that were models or influences for you?

I have always like observational or verité film and had always wanted to have the time and the subject to be able to make one. Two major influences would be the work of Kim Longinotto, especially her film Divorce Iranian Style, and Abbas Kirostami, no particular film but just his style and use of long shots, scenes and not a rapid rate of editing. There are lot of European films and British filmmakers like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and of course Werner Herzog that I have always admired. Again, I think that the lack of language actually gave me more time to concentrate on the shot and the ability to think through the edit of a scene while I was shooting, as I did not have to think as much about what everyone was saying. I would film very long takes so as not to cut half way through sentences or subject matter.

There are some prominent characters in the film, but you don't pick one or two of the men and follow them home, tell their biographies, etc. It is really a portrait of a neighborhood, a collective portrait, with an almost anthropological approach. Did you always plan this? 

I suppose I did. And it has become a slightly ethnographic film because of it. I found the street to be this microcosm of what was happening throughout Egypt, especially Cairo. Rumour and mis-information would blow through the street like small dust storms: You could almost see it start at one end of the street and then finish up at the other end. Everyone in the street knows everyone else; they have all grown up together. In the end it is exactly as you say, a portrait of neighborhood. I think if I had left it, the street, the film would have become something very different and possibly like many of the other films which have looked at the past few years in Egypt.

Also, there is not a lot of drama in the film – no climactic confrontation, no defined narrative arc. The revolution happens in the background (mostly on TV). How much was it a conscious choice to make a non-sensational, very "ordinary" film about this extraordinary time? And to make a film with very little "story"? 

In some way it was probably an experiment in regards to the story arc. I wanted to break it. I was sick of seeing all these documentaries of prominent moments concentrating on single heroes whilst at the same time being bored to death by historic films which never showed the individuals outside of historic figures, presidents, activists and signed documents. I'm always wanting to know what the lives of the people who surround the hero are like.

What did you learn -- about film-making, or about Egypt -- from this project? 

I have learnt a lot about filmmaking on this film as I have produced, directed, filmed, edited, fund raised, marketed and catered on the film. Not intentionally but just due to circumstances. So I have learnt a fair deal. The biggest lesson is I would prefer not to have to do this alone again but on the flip side I know that I can if I have to. 

About Egypt – there is so much to say and there are so many far more educated people than me who have already said a lot. I think Egypt could be so much more than what it is. However I do not see that happening any time soon. I think this revolution, this story, has a lot more to play out. I don't have advice and sometimes I feel that even if I did it would not be listened to. There is a great future for Egypt but there is a lot of growing up and taking a good hard look at oneself that needs to happen before that future becomes a reality. And before all that can even start to happen, Egyptians just need to stop killing each other.

How and when did you know you were finished? 

I initially thought I was finished when Morsi was elected. I saw that as a good ending until everything started falling apart again and so I kept filming. The rise and rise of Sisi then became interesting and the whole coup/not coup thing. But it was literally as I was filming the last shot of the film that I said to myself, "this is it!", the election was over, Sisi was now President and everything was now going to be great? I literally finished the shot, put my camera away, drank some shay and said goodbye. I still visit the street a lot, but not with my camera.

Have you shown the documentary in the neighborhood it was filmed? If so, what have been the reactions? If not, do you plan to?

I have shown the film to the main characters, who have then told the rest of the street about it. I have also given each of the main characters a DVD of the film so it may have been watched a little more widely. They are happy and only had two remarks and requests, one of which I was able to do and the other I could not but I explained why and they were OK with it in the end.

I am hoping to get a screening in early May in Cairo and to invite the street. It will be interesting to see who turns up and what their thoughts are.  

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.