Canberra filmmaker Kim Beamish to tackle climate change via oysters in new film

Cris Kennedy


He began as a chef training with the best, ditched cooking for film and television, and now Kim Beamish is a feted documentary filmmaker, whose 2015 film The Tentmakers of Cairo won a slew of awards.

The Canberra-based filmmaker has recently started shooting his new film, Oyster, about the families whose livelihoods depend on Australia’s oyster industry.

Filmmaking might seem a world away from Beamish’s first career in superstar chef Neil Perry’s kitchen at Rockpool. And while he threw cooking aside for film and television production many years ago, he finds himself only catching up with the on-screen careers of the apprentices he trained with, including the likes of Kylie Kwong.

“Rockpool was brilliant and insane, and I loved working there,” Beamish says.

“It was an amazing time to be there and I loved learning about new foods, cooking ingredients I’d never heard of before, but it was incredibly stressful.”

Rockpool was a world away from Beamish’s next job in the UK as Chef D’Potage at Glyndeborne, the posh country house and opera venue in Brighton frequented by the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, among others.

“At Rockpool the kitchen was small and in the open so everybody saw us and we saw them,” Beamish says. “While Glyndeborne was this very old-school place with 50 chefs, at the back of the building where we never saw anything.”

But Beamish was probably destined to work in the arts. His grandmother was the painter Winifred Beamish, and his father a practicing artist, though he credits his mother with enrolling him in a school holiday photography program at University of New South Wales as a 10-year-old, sparking a lifelong love of working with images.

Moving back to Australia in the late 1990s, the young chef started experimenting with video and filmmaking, and eventually landed himself a job at Melbourne’s Channel 31 on an alternative news program.

“This is where I cut my teeth, learning from everybody there skills like cinematography and editing,” he says.

“The first editing system I learned on, Media100, didn’t even have a hard drive so you had to edit a film from beginning to end in one sitting, even if it took you the whole night because if you turned it off you would lose it.”

Beamish talked his way into a post-graduate position at VCA, successfully arguing his four-year chef’s apprenticeship should have equal weight to a university undergraduate degree, and immersed himself in studying filmmaking, with a particular love for documentary.

He went on to teach film, including at Melbourne’s Open Channel, a training and production not-for-profit. It was here that he was approached by the lawyer for Van Nguyen, the Australian citizen caught with 400 grams of heroin at Singapore Airport in December 2002.

“Julian McMahon [Nguyen’s lawyer] was looking for a film crew to make a documentary he thought might help save his [Nguyen’s] life,” Beamish says.

“We said we wouldn’t make some fluff piece, that we wanted to make something that told the full story, and they didn’t like that initially but said yes to that,” he says.

Beamish and fellow filmmakers Shannon Owen and Liz Burke spent considerable time in Australia and Singapore with Van Nguyen and his family, with the legal team, making Just Punishment which aired on the ABC in 2006, a year after Nguyen’s execution in Changi Prison.

Beamish says the experience took a major toll on him.

“It cost me a lot more than I thought it would, emotionally, I mean we were with Van the evening before his execution, and afterwards,” he says.

“What I did come away with was the desire to work on films about social justice and those kinds of issues.”

When Beamish’s wife was posted to Egypt, he stumbled on his next subject. The Tentmakers of Cairo began its life as an ethnographic study of the businessmen working in Cairo’s garment district, but Beamish’s time with them coincided with the Arab Spring, and his film captures the spirit and impact of that great social change on these men and their families.

Tentmakers won Beamish the top prize at the American Museum of Natural History’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, a prize he almost missed out on collecting.

“We were all sitting around chatting about who might win at this gala awards dinner and I dropped my glass and went under the table to pick it up,” Beamish says.

“Everyone was staring at me – they’d just announced my name and I’d completely missed it.”

With their posting over, Beamish and his wife now live in Canberra where he taught film at the University of Canberra and has now started work on his next project.

“I was in this great position as a filmmaker in Egypt because we had a nanny and I had the time to be out there and filming and spending time with people,” he says.

“But here I have to be more practical.”

After toying with the idea for a series looking at social issues, he decided to focus on just one – climate change – and particularly his childhood friend’s family oyster business.

He’s interested in how the family are preparing for and reacting to the current and future impact of climate change on their oysters and, by extension, their income.

“I have tried to approach this the same way I did Tentmakers,” Beamish says.

“In that film I didn’t look at the politics but the people dealing with it on a daily basis, and here similarly we’re not focusing on the scientists or the science but the famers and the community.”

His subjects are Dom and Pip Boyton, second-generation owners of Merimbula Gourmet Oysters, whose family farm Beamish spent many of his school holidays with as a child.

“I remember as a child my mother talking with the (elder) Boytons about their farm and it was always fire, drought, flooding rains, one trial after the other and rarely about bumper crops or amazing sales,” Beamish says.

“I wanted to tell that story, but as they’re now dealing with the environment in more challenging ways it was a great way to also explore the social justice side of that.”

Working with Beamish is Pat Fiske, producer of the 1992 Fred Hollows documentary For All The World To See and the 1985 history of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation Rocking The Foundations, and whose work Beamish had studied at university.

“It’s great to have this sounding board, this person who has usually gone through the problems and challenges I come across as I’m making this film,” he says.

Together they have been experimenting with crowd-funding for their film, thus far raising $25,000 with the rest of their budget coming from the Documentary Australia Foundation and agencies like Screen ACT.

Cris Kennedy is manager of education and engagement at the National Film and Sound Archive.

Filmmakers Kim Beamish and Pat Fiske will share early footage from their in-production documentary Oyster with audiences at the National Film and Sound Archive on Friday December 16 from 6pm, and screen the 2004 feature film The Oyster Farmer, starring Canberra’s Alex O’Loughlin. Tickets $20/$18 (concession) available online at – (tickets include Eden Road wines and Capital Brewing Company beers and freshly shucked oysters from Merimbula Gourmet Oysters).