Susan Teskey explores Egypt – Interview

When it comes to documentaries, you really have to do your research. Sometimes when it comes to schools, they leave out a lot of materials that could either be useful or fascinating. I do a lot of research myself out of boredom from time to time, but never have I heard so much about the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. She’s a constant subject in Hollywood movie adaptions, a favourite costume for some women on Halloween, and makes quite a few appearances in the Asterix comics. Coming out tomorrow is a documentary that explores the real Cleopatra, revealing secrets and stories that I don’t think a whole lot of us know for sure. I spoke with the director Susan Teskey in a very informative phone call that told me some details about Searching for Cleopatra, and some more cool stories about Cleopatra. Prepare for a history lesson, folks. This is quite detailed.


HNMAG: So, how did you get the idea to do a documentary on Cleopatra?

Susan Teskey: Well, the idea actually came through two sources. There’s two mystery stories in the documentary. The first one is to find Cleopatra’s tomb, where was she buried? No one has ever found it, although people have been searching for centuries. That one came about because there is a woman named Kathleen Martinez, who for the last 14 years has been doing a dig near Alexandria which is at the mouth of the Nile Delta where Cleopatra’s Empire was based. She believes that’s where Cleopatra’s tomb is and there’s a lot of good reasons to believe that. The other piece was that there was a very fine book written by an American historian, Stacy Schiff. The book won a pulitzer, and it gave a very good into who Cleopatra was and what she did. So the other part of the search for Cleopatra is the image. The Hollywood image that we have of her, and what the reality was. Those two pieces combined are irresistible frankly, and if you come in contact with the REAL Cleopatra, not the Liz Taylor from in the movies, the more you find out about her, the more intriguing and fascinating she is. 


HNMAG: I see you went a different way instead of most interviews, asking questions, and traveling. Why is that?

Susan Teskey: Alexandria, while it had very little existence while Cleopatra was queen, it’s a fascinating place and was the best city in the world. It was the height of culture, and the height of trades. An enormously multi-cultural city, it was a place that drew people from all around the Mediterranean. The Egyptians had a great deal of money and they spent it building the biggest library in the world. It made Rome look like a backlot. Alexandria was therefore a very important piece of the puzzle. We wanted to interview Stacy Schiff because she was so knowledgeable about it, and there were other women who were working in the field of classical studies and taking a very fresh look at who this woman was. I also talked to an Egyptian expert who was going through the Arabic texts which have largely been ignored or overlooked by Western scholars. He started to go back through these and again there was a very different picture of who this woman was when it emerged.


HNMAG: How did you learn about these women? What kind of research did you do to make these discoveries?

Susan Teskey: It’s a production that’s being shown in 3 different countries so we included women who were historians. Two English women, a Canadian, and an American. Martinez herself, she’s based in LA although she’s from the Dominican Republic. But when you’re doing classical history there’s a group of classicists who are in touch with each other and as I say this is an area where a lot of people are looking at now because it is very much of the 21st century. It’s a story partly about racism, party about sexism, and much of it is about who gets to write history. It’s not just the Roman scholars who wrote about her, she was somebody that they didn’t like at all. She was their enemy, she was seen at a threat, a rival though not really fit to take on the Roman Empire. She maintained the independence to run her country and her empire by herself for 20 years while she was on the throne of Egypt. They didn’t like that, and so the Romans painted her as this cunning conniving sex siren who manipulated men. It was kind of the classic image of who can only really have power through sex. That’s the image which was established by people who wrote her history and then picked up through the centuries by painters, playwrights, and of course by Hollywood. But so much of her story that we know is untrue and I think this was one of the surprises when we were working on it. 


HNMAG: Who did you get on your team to help you in research?

Susan Teskey: We worked with Kathleen Martinez who was doing the archaeological dig and she is very knowledgeable about Cleopatra. She’s made it her life-quest to find out more about the queen and to try and find her tomb so we worked very closely with her, and the way archaeological digs go especially in Egypt have a very checkered path of finding and looting tombs. It’s very tightly controlled. There’s a digging season like a climbing season in Mt. Everest. Then you have to get a permit to dig for a specific period of time. She goes every year, for a couple of months and then she has to stop. It’s quite a complex process with some of the discoveries as seen in the film. We worked very closely with historians and I’ve done a number of historic documentaries. I must say that people who work in the field are enormously generous with time and their insights. They love what they do and they love to help you tell these stories that you’re telling.


HNMAG: What about crew members? How did they get involved?

Susan Teskey: Arrow, the production team we were working with in London is a very very experienced production team. They have wonderful crews, they have wonderful editors and the editing was kind of strange because it was being done during the first lockdown of the pandemic. I’m in Toronto, the editor was in London, England so the entire thing was edited remotely which worked surprisingly well. When you’re talking about picture lock and there are frames you want changed, that is not the easiest thing to do remotely. But it really worked. I hadn’t worked with him before but with editors and camera people, I find if you’re on the same wavelength you connect very quickly actually. Then you both tend to see things the same way and have the same instincts. It’s really easy, it’s joy even though you’re never in the same room. He loved the script, he loved the take, he just entered into it and that’s one of the most wonderful parts of doing a documentary. It was strange doing it remotely but the way things are going, this is probably the future. The CGI was done in Canada but not Toronto, so it was all back and forth.  David Suzuki who hosted it was out on the coast of BC, in isolation and that all had to be done remotely. But the people involved were all pro’s.


HNMAG: Was there anything you discovered in your research that surprised you?

Susan Teskey: Oh, God. Where do you want me to start? (laughs) I studied history in University though not classical history, I don’t know if I knew a lot more about Cleopatra than most people would know. I did not realize that she had such a large empire, I didn’t realize she was the wealthiest woman in the world then. But Egypt was enormously wealthy, wealthier than Rome. I didn’t know that she was so well-educated. She spoke 9 languages and she was really somebody who was an intellectual as well as a ruler and an administrator. She ran the country very well. This was all a shock to me and of course one of the biggest shocks was her appearance. Since we are so used to the image of Cleopatra that has come down over the centuries, as this beautiful sexy creature, the reality of what she looks like is shocking especially in the film when we do the recreation of what we believe she looked like based on the archaeological finds and various pieces of research. You kind of start to peel it away and there’s more and more surprises. It’s an astonishing story and one that we’ll probably never COMPLETELY know. In 635 AD, there was a series of earthquakes and a tsunami that destroyed a lot of Alexandria and a lot of it slid into the ocean. The loss was incalculable. They’re still digging up artifacts, but anything written on paper or papyrus about her at the time is gone. That’s why with the archaeological digs, everything you come across gives you a little bit more calculation.


HNMAG: Is there anything you ended up cutting out but wanted to include in Searching for Cleopatra?

Susan Teskey: I think that there was more detail about the dig itself and the objects that the found. We could’ve gone into more and that’s too bad. There are two mysteries: where is she and where is her tomb which is fascinating because anyone who watches the Hollywood movies, knows she and the Roman’s leader general Mark Antony committed suicide when the enemies were closing in on him. His body and his tomb have also never been found. Maybe the two of them are in a tomb somewhere together. I have no idea if that’s true and there probably is some reasons why it’s true or not, but I think in terms of the mystery of her life-story, was how she gets to see Julius Caesar. The only story anyone remembers is her rolling out of the rug at Caesar, batting her eyes, and falling in bed with him. But I think the story from back then tells you what kind of young woman she was back then. One of the other surprising things that I didn’t know about was the dynasty that she was part of. They were called Ptolemies, and they were from Macedonia so they weren’t Egyptian at all. They were a very brutal bunch, ant they wanted to hold onto power at any cost and so they had a tendency to marry their siblings. Supposedly to eliminate them as a rival for the throne. But usually what they did was end up marrying them and then murdering them. In the case of Cleopatra when she is 18, she gets married to her younger brother to jointly serve on the throne of Egypt. The younger brother doesn’t want to share power with his sister, just the army is loyal to him and he drives her out of Alexandria. So she’s a young woman in the desert and she starts to raise an army. She wants her throne back, and it really is astonishing when you think about it. That’s when Julius Caesar comes to Alexandria and she knows if she has any chance of saving her throne, and her life, she has to get to Caesar before her brother does. Another interesting thing we couldn’t include in the story is what happened to her children. She had one son by Julius Caesar, Tazarian and she had three children with Mark Antony. When the new Roman leader Octavian, is Mark’s new enemy and closing in on Alexandria, she tries to negotiate for the life of her children. She sends the son of Caesar, who is of course, a MAJOR problem for Octavian because Tazarian was a dictator in Rome. She knows that and tries to fend him off to India. She figures it’s a safe enough distance and he sets off with a trusted advisor who betrays him and then he is killed. It’s a story that no one really knows about but it tells you about the way things operated then. It was utterly ruthless, there was no shilly-shallying about, if you were a threat you were eliminated. Mark Antony’s three children are not seen as a threat, and so he raises them as part of his household. That shows you the regard he had for Antony who has been rather ill-served by Hollywood. Also, once Cleopatra commits suicide, it’s the end of the Pharaohs, and that concludes an incredible part of history.



HNMAG: Now a little more regarding Hollywood’s way of storytelling. What do you feel is the most inaccurate depiction of Cleopatra?

Susan Teskey: Well, it’s the combination of her looks. For starters, she doesn’t look ANYTHING like Liz Taylor. Also, the dumbing down. She’s kind of seen as a scheming sex-kitten, and that’s not who she was. She was a woman who was very shrewd and very resourceful, she survived as the leader of an Empire in the face of Rome for over 20 years which was an ASTONISHING achievement, male or female. She had a relationship with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony but they were very real relationships, not just “I’ll get ‘em into bed and I’ll get what I want”. The relationship with Antony went on for fourteen years, Caesar was fascinated with her and he even brought her to Rome. There were people who believed she was someone he could rely on. She was very knowledgeable and she spoke latin. She was not just a sex siren, but a real remarkable person. It’s hard to think of another leader like her.


HNMAG: How did you manage to pinpoint shooting locations in Egypt?

Susan Teskey: The digging that is going on at this location which is about 35 KM west from Alexandria in a temple complex that’s called Taposiris Magna. It was a temple to Isis, and Cleopatra as a pharaoh was seen as a living God and the God she identified with was the Goddess Isis. So this is a temple to her own Goddess if you will. It was kind of an obvious location in terms of following the dig. We also shot in Alexandria, even though there isn’t much left as one would hope. The dig site was huge though, and we were lucky that we didn’t have to run all over the place. 


HNMAG: And how did you decide which people were going to appear in Searching for Cleopatra?

Susan Teskey: It was a combination of factors, Stacy Schiff was a no brainer, and as with any documentary, we were looking for people for are great talkers, and are obviously engaging and very engaged by the subject. Obviously, we wanted women, as much as we could to tell her story because her story has been told by men for centuries. Most of the people in the film are women, the only exception is the Arabic scholar. That’s because a lot of the research is coming from these ancient sources and he’s been doing the work. He really brings the voice that tells the story no one has ever heard. Voices from Egyptians and the Middle East. It was very important to restore her story through the voices that hadn’t been heard. 


HNMAG: How did it get picked up by CBC?

Susan Teskey: Actually, they commissioned it. It was pitched to The Nature of Things, which has been going 60 seasons. It’s an exceptionally terrific show that interprets its mandate very broadly. They have done quite a few ancient history documentaries that are using scientific advances in archaeology that are revealing things. There was a dig going on and they wanted to find out new things about history, and this main character of Cleopatra who was an extraordinary woman and knew we would have the element of surprise.


HNMAG: How does it feel having Searching for Cleopatra on The Nature of Things?

Susan Teskey: It’s great, I think it’s a natural place for it. I think one thing about The Nature of Things that stands out is the fascination of the world. You learn things about the world that you didn’t know before. Whether it’s a national phenomenon or a historical phenomenon that’s being revealed through science. It’s a great show, with an enormously broad mandate. I think the producer is using that mandate to cover really fascinating territory to surprise the viewers. 


HNMAG: It kind of ends on a cliffhanger. Will there be a sequel in the future that will cover more of Cleopatra’s history?

Susan Teskey: If there’s a major development, then I can’t imagine people saying “No, we’re not interested.” (laughs) It’s so tantalizing, it’s a voyage of discovery. Not quite Indiana Jones, but it’s pretty good. 


HNMAG: Will you be doing similar projects? Like researching other famous women and discovering more details?

Susan Teskey: Well, there’s a couple of things that we’re looking at right now and kind of along the same lines. That’s all I’m going to say. But I feel like one of the wonderful things about being in the documentary business is there’s always fascinating material out there. If you’re open to the world, you’re never lost for great stories.


Searching for Cleopatra airs tomorrow as part of CBC’s The Nature of Things at 9PM PST. Watch it and discover some things you never knew.

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