Filmmaking couple works on Bangladeshi woman’s story

From Canada to Bangladesh to Gig Harbor, the journey from diplomats and art aficionados to documentary filmmakers has taken Leonard Hill and Cathy Stevulak to some unexpected places.The couple, married for almost 21 years, is used to traveling. Hill worked in the U.S. Foreign Service and was stationed all over the world, including a post in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, from 2001-03.
It was there that Hill and Stevulak connected with Surayia Rahman, a Bangladeshi textile artist.
A decade later, the couple is in the process of editing a short film, “Threads: The Art and Life of Surayia Rahman,” which they hope to complete by the end of the year.
“We thought, ‘How hard could it be to make a documentary film?’ ” Stevulak asked with a laugh.
The journey began in Toronto, where Hill was posted and Stevulak was involved with the Textile Museum of Canada. As the couple prepared to move to Bangladesh for Hill’s next assignment, Stevulak heard about a white-haired woman who was making astounding textile art in that country, and she was encouraged to track her down.
But it wasn’t until late into their time in Bangladesh that Stevulak noticed an exceptionally colorful tapestry for sale at an outdoor market. It was casually slung over a table by a young female vendor. Stevulak asked the vendor who she worked for: an elderly, white-haired woman named Surayia Rahman.
Suspecting that might be the woman she’d heard about in Toronto, Stevulak was led to Rahman’s home, down a narrow street in a crowded, poor section of Dhaka.
“Even if you knew where to find her, you’d never find her,” Stevulak said.
In the unassuming place, Rahman worked with several young women to create hand-stitched “nakshi kantha” tapestries, traditional embroidered folk art native to Bangladesh and parts of India. The colorful, intricate works seemed to be in high demand – Rahman told Stevulak she couldn’t sell her anything, because she had back orders to fill for the next several months – and Rahman had worked with hundreds of underprivileged women throughout the years to produce the tapestries.
Several years later, Hill had retired from the foreign service, and he and Stevulak had moved back to their home on Herron Island. They were in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a temporary assignment when Stevulak got coffee with an old friend and began to tell her about Rahman.
“You have to document her stories and her art, and you have to do it before she’s gone,” Hill remembered their friend saying.
Rahman, 77 at the time, was in poor health and was visiting family members in Toronto. Hill and Stevulak, who had heard she was in Canada, were unsure when she would be healthy enough to make the return trip to Bangladesh.
“We’re not filmmakers,” Stevulak said. “We didn’t know anything about it.”
But they were inspired by the idea and sought out the help of a few filmmakers around Toronto. Everyone they spoke with told them the same thing: it’s a great project, and I’ll help you, but you have to be the ones to lead it.
“Trust is always important in documentary filmmaking,” Stevulak said. “And we had the trust of our main character, which was especially important because we had an aging subject and had to dive right in.”
Because of Rahman’s age and declining health, Hill and Stevulak had to move quickly. They found a professional cinematographer and director and began to shoot interviews with Rahman in Toronto.
“We did everything exactly backwards,” Hill said, describing the usual filmmaking schedule of writing a treatment and script and lining up financing before beginning to shoot. “But because of the time pressure, we thought, ‘We’ll just start filming and then go back and do everything else in proper order.’ ”
Learning how to make a documentary on the fly presented a challenge, Stevulak said, but it also helped the couple craft a wider narrative.
Rahman’s health improved enough for her to return to Dhaka, and Hill and Stevulak traveled to visit her and interview a few of the women she had taught.
“As we were doing interviews, we realized there was a much larger story there than just the art – a story about social change, perseverance and the empowerment of women,” Stevulak said.
Rahman’s tapestries, produced entirely by women near the bottom of Bangladesh’s social and economic ladder, are regarded highly enough to be given as gifts to visiting dignitaries by the government of Bangladesh. Part of Hill and Stevulak’s task became the detective work of tracking down tapestries from around the world to use in their film – Rahman keeps no finished work in her home, nor records of her sales.
Hill and Stevulak have spent years finding and confirming Rahman’s sales, from the grandiose – Queen Elizabeth had her government purchase a tapestry from Rahman in the 1980s, and a Bangladeshi ambassador also presented a tapestry to Kim Il-Sung, the former North Korean dictator – to the collections of private individuals around the world, from Italy to Japan to Lacey.
Now, the couple keeps a database of the information on their website, and they hope to give it to a museum after the film is complete.
They’re now in the process of editing the film, which will likely run about 30 minutes, and another trip to Bangladesh to complete filming may be necessary.
The process of promoting the film, from building “likes” on the film’s Facebook page to seeking additional funding from individuals and foundations, also has taken Hill and Stevulak around the Gig Harbor region. They have screened clips and trailers from the film at a number of locations, including the Harbor History Museum and last weekend at the Mustard Seed Project’s Silver Cinema Series at the Key Center branch of the Pierce County Library System, where they also give a presentation about Bangladesh and Rahman’s work.
Those presentations, along with the input of friends around Gig Harbor, has helped the couple shape and refine their film, Stevulak said.
“I can’t tell you how many people have sat at our kitchen counter and given us feedback,” Stevulak said. “This has all been such a learning experience, but luckily we’ve had such a great team with us, people from all over the community.”
After editing is complete, Hill and Stevulak will look toward getting “Threads” distributed at film festivals or possibly for broadcast on TV. Stevulak said she believes the film’s core message, about how art helped women rise from poverty, will resonate with viewers.
“They’re materially some of the poorest women in the country, but they’re making some of the finest art that gets sent around the world,” she said. “It shows what can come from just one person, sharing her skills, quietly, in the background.”
(Source:the Gateway via Google news)

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