Indie documentary filmmakers race against the clock to tell story of Bangladeshi artist
If Cathy Stevulak and Leonard Hill knew three years ago what they know now, they would have probably not followed an idea that grew from a simple interview into an international documentary. Had they had filmmaking experience, the complexity of the project would have likely deterred them from embarking on a career they’d never considered before.
Now that the production of their film, “Treads,” is nearing completion, the couple are enjoying the unexpected road that led to the creation of their new company, Kantha Productions.
“The suggestion to do this came exactly at the right time because we were both looking for the right project,” Hill said.
Hill’s 27-year career with the U.S. State Department took him around the world. Stevulak had worked on human rights projects, including with the U.N. Development Program in Bangladesh.
It was while living in Bangladesh about a decade ago when they first met Surayia Rahma, a self-trained, renowned artist whose tapestries are part of museum and private collections around the world.
Fast forward to 2009, when during to Canada a professor tells them Rahma, living in Toronto with relatives at the time, was in poor health. If she died, the story of her art would never be told. “Do something about it,” the professor urged.
With Hill freshly retired and both looking for new career paths, it seemed like a simple project: interview Rahma about her techniques and create a short ethnographic film.
“We went from Herron Island to Toronto, interviewed her and realized it was a broader story than the tapestries. It was a social story,” Stevulak said. “It captured us. We’ve been captured ever since.”
The pair learned that Rahma had become a legend in her community. She hadn’t just created masterworks, but had empowered scores of impoverished women. As her health declined and she could no longer stitch, she trained the women to stitch her designs for her. Through the years, hundreds of women came from miles away, sometimes even swimming through flooded roads. For many, the employment by Rahma allowed them to put their children through school and provide for their families.
“We both had a very good sense about the people in the country,” Stevulak said. “When we see the stitching and the work (the women did), we realize how difficult it was for them to come out of poverty and how exceptionally hard that work was for them.”
Filmmakers are born
Stevulak and Hill, who now split their time between Herron Island and Gig Harbor, lived on the island at the time and swam at the Easter Seals camp pool. They would bounce their ideas off the other swimmers in the class, using them as a sounding board and later as a resource for finding other professionals to assist them.
Knowing their limitations, the two decided to hire professional cinematographers and video editors instead of trying to learn the skills themselves. Stevulak took on the role of director, and the husband-and-wife team became co-producers. Among the people they hired in Bangladesh included a videographer team from a well-known local filmmaking company.
They’ve done much of the interviewing remotely — from the USA, via Skype, using crews in Bangladesh (Rahma had since returned home). They had a virtual assistant at one point and hired a Seattle editor, using various tech tools for transmitting files and information.
In December, they will mark the third anniversary of the project. Their dream is to finish the documentary by the end of the year. If Surayia’s brother is correct, this is her 80th birth year and the film would make for one special gift.
“It’s a very ambitious goal but we’re aiming for it,” Hill said.
“Threads” is currently in the rough-cut phase and there is still editing to be done as well as post-production, narration and original music scoring. They are working with 30 hours of raw footage, not including additional audio and translations, and are yet to decide whether the film would be 30 or 60 minutes.
“We knew instinctively that whatever we did had to measure up to Surayia’s quality. She’s a perfectionist with her art,” Hill said.
One major part left is obtaining high-resolution photographs of Rahma’s tapestries from around the world. Tracking them has required detective work across the globe and communicating across many languages. That path led them, virtually speaking, all the way to the Buckingham Palace (among other places): Queen Elizabeth had visited Rahma’s project and the couple confirmed through palace staff that one of the tapestries in her collection is Rahma’s.
The end of production, however, is only the beginning of another task: distribution. The filmmakers have some dreams and ideas for their debut, festival shows and even television.
And that’s where their next major challenge lies. All this promoting requires more funding. So far, they have paid for production with a grant from the Puffin Foundation and several organizations as well as support from friends and family, along with online donations from strangers and their personal funds. They’ve secured a fiscal sponsorship from the International Documentary Association, which allows them to accept tax-deductible donations. And they’ve been conducting extensive research into online crowdfunding through platform such as kickstarter.com, an idea they may pursue.
It’s too early for Stevulak and Hill to look beyond this project, which has consumed them daily for nearly three years. But they have loved this second career so far — and Rahma continues to serve as their inspiration.
“Surayia changed her life to work with women after she was 50 years old. We started this project after we were 50 years old,” Stevulak said. “If she can do it, we can do it. Every time we come across obstacles, we think if those girls can do it, we can too.”
Cathy Stevulak and Leonard Hill will share their work on “Threads” and Surayia Rahma’s tapestries at the Longbranch Fiber Arts Festival Oct. 6. For more information about the film, go to kanthathreads.com.