Monday, 3 December 2018

Cameras under hijabs: capturing the art of the Qashqai people

Welington woman Anna Williams met Sir David Attenborough while filming the documentary. Courtesy Stuff
by Phil Quin, Stuff

One faded piece, one frayed edge, one painstaking stitch at a time, Wellingtonian Anna Williams has spent the past thirty years repairing Persian rugs. Solitary work, maybe, but never lonely. 

"One of the first rugs I worked on - I remember it was midnight - I felt I wasn't alone.  I felt these amazing women out of whose imagination and traditions this carpet came, as well as others who have repaired them along the way, even the traders who sold them". 

When she comes across traces of an earlier repair, it thrills her: "Oh look, there's someone else in this story".

The Kiwi, The Knight and the Qashqai, a new documentary from Wellington filmmaker Anna Cottrell, follows Williams on her seventh journey to Iran where she renews old friendships among the nomadic Qashqai people, and stocks up on rare yarns and dyes.

Along the way, they meet with renowned British documentarian David Attenborough who first brought focus to the cultural traditions of the Qashqai in a 1975 documentary.

"Our Iranian friends drove us from Tehran to the Caspian Sea and back down to Shiraz in the Fars province, the summer home of the Qashqai nomads. We filmed when and where we could," Cottrell said.

Conditions weren't always easy - "filming under a hijab, covered from top to toe in accordance with Iranian law in 40 degrees of heat" - but Williams' warmth and rug repairing skills ensured the pair had open access to people with a way of life that's changing fast, Cottrell said.

Williams, a qualified social worker, left her hometown of Auckland in 1973. After travelling in Europe she found herself in Scotland. She loved the people, but the work wasn't for her.  "I didn't know my place in the world."

Armed with a £50 ticket from London to Kathmandu, she travelled across Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran. Relatives had brought oriental carpets back to New Zealand from India and Singapore - she was already a fan - but Williams "gorged" herself on the dazzling array of colours and patterns, the elaborate looms, the teeming bazaars.

"All I could afford was a cheap cotton jacket." A fellow Kiwi on the bus trip did manage to buy a rug. He came to Anna for repairs 30 years later.

Back home, a friend told Williams about a hand-weaving course at Nelson Polytechnic, and she quickly enrolled. From day one, it felt right. "I knew that's what I'm here to do - and that feeling never left."

The reputation Williams has built since, in New Zealand and beyond, owes much to her finely-honed skills, tenacity and an unforgiving eye for detail. But these are qualities you might expect. What animates Williams most of all, and what 10 minutes in her presence leaves beyond doubt, is an irrepressible love for the artform and its practitioners. 

In legends passed down over centuries, the Qashqai swept into Persia on the vanguard of Genghis Khan's armies. They settled first in the mountains of Azerbaijan before relocating to southern Iran, their habitat for the past 400 years. 

Visiting the Qashqai in 1975, David Attenborough encountered a "mysterious and ferociously independent people". A lot has happened in Iran in the intervening years. Modernity marches on, undeterred. Today's Qashqai families remain semi-nomadic, but donkeys, horses and camels have given way to trucks and motorbikes.

Likewise, the culture of weaving is in decline. "Where I am is my carpet," the Qashqai would say, "Where my carpet and I am is my home." 

These days, however, most tribal women have given away the time-consuming practice of weaving, and girls are unlikely even to learn the craft. For all their popularity among collectors, the economics cannot be made to work for traditional carpet-weavers.

Handmade pieces take months, even years, from start to finish. Machine-made rugs, made from design templates, fill the void.

Williams notes these changes, but without rancour. People have to make a living, she tells me: "their kids want cell-phones, too".  A touch wistfully, she tells me how one of her weaver friends still keeps a traditional loom, but only as a display for cultural tourists.

At the time of filming, Williams faced a cancer scare that has since passed - and she is eager to return to Iran. "I need to go while I still can and no-one knows what's ahead."

Meanwhile, Williams has work to do. Carpets and rugs in various states of disrepair demand her attention. Her part in their stories wait to be written. Only rarely is the damage irreversible, but time has a way of marching on.

"Rugs get worn, eventually beyond repair. And that's okay."

Wellington rug repairer Anna Williams mends a rug. Courtesy Stuff
Camera woman Mairi Gunn and Anna Cottrell filmed the documentary in Iran. Courtesy Stuff

Via Stuff

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