Filmmaker Q&A with Director Cathy Stevulak

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

No one in particular, but several filmmakers were immensely helpful in our film-making process. Catherine Masud, our co-producer, is a great mentor.


What motivated you to make this film?

An ordinary, yet extraordinary, group of women in Bangladesh who overcome social and economic challenges by creating timeless works of art.

Here is more detail….

My husband, Leonard, and I lived in Bangladesh for two years while working with the US Embassy and the United Nations Development Programme. We traveled throughout the country and were particularly inspired by the resilient, innovative and hard-working people, particularly women. This is a much different story than the floods, poverty and factory collapses that are often portrayed in media, and we often yearned to be able to share this view and privilege of insight that we had. However, it never crossed our mind to be filmmakers.

After moving from Bangladesh, a professor encouraged us to make a film about an artist whom we had met during our time there. Artist Surayia Rahman had brought together a group of women of Bangladesh to achieve something extraordinary. For over 25 years, they created exquisite, embroidered artworks that brought positive change and opportunities for their families – stitch by stitch. Their textile artwork is now in museums and private collections around the world, yet their story was untold.

As Surayia was aging and in ill health, Leonard and I lost sleep over the idea of making a film, and naively decided to start. At over 50 years of age, we became filmmakers to tell this important story about art, women, and most importantly, about the sharing of self for the betterment of others.

Many people have encouraged and inspired us along the way — the women in Bangladesh, experienced filmmakers, friends and family. Our motivation ebbed and flowed as it took five years to complete the film. Since then, it is our audiences who motivate us — through each screening and discussion, each question from a student or teacher, we learn, share and get energy to realize more impact from our collective actions.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.



Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.

Motion graphics at several points to juxtapose scenes in artwork with real life scenes, and for transition shots from line drawings to finished textile art.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

When we started to make the film, we thought that it would be about Surayia Rahman with a focus on her art. However, after the first in-depth interview with Surayia, we realized that this was a broader social story of how a group of women overcome great personal challenges and of how one person can make a difference in the lives of many.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

Attending the Bengali language premiere with an audience of young women from a Dhaka slum, at a major theatre.


What advice can you give to other filmmakers?

Look for what the subjects of the film can teach you and what they are really saying. Spend as much time steeped in the lives and environments of the subjects so that you can feel oneself ‘in their shoes.’


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

Discoveries during the research for the film and connecting with people around the world is like unwrapping a present every day.

The serendipity of events unfolding. Challenges can turn into gold: a letter in Surayia’s own handwriting arriving unexpectedly in our mail, uncovering details of a key turning point in her life.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

Bottled water


Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

A personal story:

During a gathering of the women participants in the film, we noticed that one was dressed completely in black and looked uncharacteristically downcast. We asked her what was on her mind and were touched when she confided in us that she had cancer, a very private concern. With the help of friends, we were able to find qualified health professionals to treat her cancer and guide her on her journey back to health. When we went back to Dhaka some years later to to screen the film, she participated in screenings and was continuing to share her skills with others.

Another story:

Surayia told us many times about “a German man” who helped her significantly in the early days and gave her ideas. How would we find him to talk to him? “Well,” she said, “he’s German and lived in Bangladesh. There can’t be too many people like that.” Amazingly, we did eventually track him down and were impressed by his enthusiasm for the THREADS project and by his willingness to help. We had no budget to travel to Germany for an interview and to see the artwork he owned. “I think I can help you out,” he said. “My sister lives in the U.S. about 90 minutes away from you and I will give some artwork to her husband who is visiting me next week. You can collect the pieces from him and return them to him when you are done with them.” We are now all friends.


Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?

We encountered many obstacles but, for every challenge, there seemed to be a serendipitous event that took place and helped us to carry on.

Challenges in making the film:

-hartals (general strikes that can turn violent) forced postponement of film shoots

-the death of brilliant filmmakers Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munier (advisor and cinematographer for THREADS) and the serious injury of co-producer Catherine Masud set us back emotionally

– working in a language that we did not understand

– racing against the end of Surayia’s lifetime

– finding the women’s art around the world, following clues over many months to find owners, and then incorporating images into the film.


We have shown the film on five continents, in most cases with personal appearances for discussion and Q and A.


Distribution: interesting distributors early in the process as we were making a short film at a time when demand was mostly for features. Distributors could only sell feature length to television. By the time we were completing the film, short films had become more popular.

Outreach – Creating value for docs so that filmmakers can be paid for exhibiting and discussing the film.


What do you want audiences to take away from this video?

For student audiences:

-The importance of creativity and the value of handwork

-Respect for people who create with their hands (manual intelligence is as important as intellectual intelligence)

-Inspiration that it is possible for everyone to overcome obstacles

-One person make a difference in the lives of many others by sharing talents and skills

-Collaboration makes us stronger as individuals

-We can change the world by what we buy and value

-Small is beautiful. Social businesses can have generational impact, even when small.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

A Study Guide is available on THREADS website at

We also provide the link here:

THREADS is used for various disciplines and subjects including leadership, entrepreneurship/business, community development, art/design, fashion, women’s studies, rhetoric, diversity and inclusion. Educators are welcome to contact the filmmakers to discuss ideas.


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?

Surayia passed away in 2018. Some of the women in the film continue to embroider and teach their skills, however their collective has become fragmented as some have gone to work in industries such as banking, shrimp farming, garment production. Others have retired to spend more time with their growing families or for health reasons.

A key challenge to skilled artisans who create handcrafted textiles in the region (such as weavers, embroiderers, natural dyers) is the flourishing of ‘fast fashion,’ cheap clothing that often ends up in landfills. With more attention being paid to sustainability of livelihoods and our environment, the hope is that increasing numbers of young people will lead the way in respecting and valuing handcraft and encouraging habits of consumption that make a positive difference for people and the environment.

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged artisan communities from a health perspective, as well as for marketing their work. In order to keep the art of handcraft alive and well, it will take each of us to spread the word about its importance, and to celebrate the joy that it brings.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?


-Make something by hand. Take time to create.

-Celebrate craft traditions and the work of designers who are involved in handcraft by sharing on social media.

-Talk with artisans about their work.

-Wear something handmade each day, either made by you or by someone else.


-Screen and discuss THREADS film.

-Invite the filmmakers to a Q and A with students.

-Encourage students to come up with ideas on how to get involved. They often have the best ideas. (We have an example of students connecting with another culture on a human level by making greeting cards with kantha embroidery motifs on them to send to victims of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.)

In future:

In the near future, we will explore with people in Bangladesh about the possibilities to create a centre for teaching and learning textile handcraft, where artists/artisans/designers could come together to share their creativity and nurture ideas. This was one of Surayia’s dreams. If you are interested, please contact us, the filmmakers.


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.) relevant to the context of the issue discussed in your video:

THREADS website

See THREADS Study Guide

A video about Kantha on the Tracing Patterns website



© SIMA Academy