Filmmaker Interview: Directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum on LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD

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Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

Letters from Baghdad is the story of Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary women, sometimes called the “female” Lawrence of Arabia. She was a British spy, explorer and political powerhouse. Bell traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence during WWI to help draw the borders of Iraq. As a result, she helped shape the modern Middle East.

Filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum reveal the real life drama of Gertrude Bell’s life through the use of stunning, never-seen-before footage of the region, chronicling Bell’s extraordinary journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British colonial power.

The story is told entirely in the words of Gertrude Bell (voiced by Tilda Swinton, who also executive produced the documentary) and her contemporaries, excerpted from their intimate letters, private diaries and political documents. Letters From Baghdad is a unique look at both a complex woman and a long-vanished world. The film takes us into a past that is eerily current.

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell

Read what Letters from Baghdad directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have to say about their compelling documentary and how it came to be.

How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

We first met on a documentary called Ahead of Time in 2008. That film was about centenarian journalist Ruth Gruber who had spent time in the Middle East. Both of us had traveled individually in the Middle East and developed an interest in the region. One day, we were both in Ruth Gruber’s apartment and Sabine asked Ruth if she had heard of Gertrude Bell. Ruth hadn’t, but Zeva had just finished the biography Desert Queen by Janet Wallach. We agreed that Gertrude Bell was the perfect follow-up to Ruth Gruber and would make a compelling, complex documentary subject.

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell

We came to appreciate Gertrude Bell’s complexity. She left behind more than 1600 letters and these letters, written to close friends and family, contrast sharply with her public persona. She could be vulnerable, warm, arrogant or abrupt.

What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

We learned that you need a lot of patience and stamina. We first discussed the idea of doing a film 8 years ago. It took us about 3 years to get our schedules in sync, and then another 5 years of full-time work. The fundraising itself took a long time and we did it on and off throughout making the film.

What were your biggest challenges?

Our first challenge was whether we would find enough archival footage for a full length film. We were hoping to find footage from 100 years ago in the Middle East, but weren’t sure what to expect. Would there be enough footage and what shape would it be in? Actually, the first phone call we made resulted in one of the most stunning clips in the entire film. We felt that there must be treasures out there. We ended up getting nearly 800 clips from 25 different archives all over the world. We used over 500 clips in the film, some of them hand-tinted. In fact, we launched a Kickstarter campaign in March of 2014 to help pay for footage digitization. Specifically, we asked the archives to go back into their vaults and digitize or re-digitize the original 35mm footage to give us the highest resolution. We recently won a Focal International award for Best Use of Archival Footage.

letters from baghdad 1

Fundraising was our other challenge. It is very hard to raise money and sell a historical documentary. Although our film has contemporary relevance, most of the funding bodies, such as the TFI or Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, support social issue, current affairs and advocacy pieces. We are indebted to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bridging Cultures through Film grant. We received both the development and production grants from the NEH.

Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

Women tend to be team players. I think this helped us collaborate effectively with each other as co-directors. We sat in a room for weeks on end and traveled together doing the research for many months. There were hundreds of people that we had to be in contact with on a regular basis and as women, maintaining relationships came easily for us.

What are your plans for the future?

First, we will make sure that our film gets a proper release and is seen by as many people as possible. We plan on being heavily involved in the promotion and distribution of it and that should keep us busy for the next few months. We have started percolating ideas for a new project and are drawn to female character driven stories. We like forgotten heroines and will most likely find another one to bring into the limelight.

Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

We very much liked Clio Barnard’s The Arbor for it’s creative approach to relating primary sources. We love Of Time and the City by Terrence Davis for his magnificent handling of archival footage. We are also inspired by Andrea Arnold’s recent film American Honey. It is beautifully shot and has a very free and open form of story telling. The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda is a masterpiece.

What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

We found it very important and helpful to work with other women. Women support women. And while we did have both men and women on the team, we were encouraged to move forward with the help and advice from other women in the industry. Our consulting team happened to be mostly women and they were some of our biggest champions. It is extremely helpful to connect with women’s professional filmmaking associations such as New York Women in Film and TV (NYWIFT) or the PGA’s Women Impact Network. They offer fiscal sponsorship, conduct workshops and panels and provide a supportive community for female filmmakers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Letters from Baghdad is AWFJ’s pick for Movie of the Week (#MOTW) for July 7 to 14, 2017.

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