The TDF Interview: Sabine Krayenbühl & Zeva Oelbaum

Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl's documentary, Letters From Baghdad, finally brings the inspiring story of Gertrude Bell to the big screen. It takes us back to the birth of Iraq as we know it today, told through the hundreds of letters written by Gertrude, who is voiced by Tilda Swinton.

Zeva and Sabine were in London recently, ahead of the release of the film, and they were kind enough to sit down and discuss just why Gertrude's history had to be documented in this way.

Tell us more about your documentary
Zeva: The film is about Gertrude Bell, who some people refer to as the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia.’ We don’t use that terminology, because we feel that her contribution was more significant than Lawrence’s. That is shorthand that a lot of people use, because they were colleagues. She helped draw the borders of Iraq, helping to create the modern state of Iraq after World War I, as well as establishing the Iraq Museum. Our film is based around the 1600 letters she wrote. But it goes beyond her point of view, although that is where we started to build the narrative. It follows her at the height of her power, revealing what took place after that.

What led you to choosing Tilda Swinton for the voice of Gertrude Bell and how did she get involved in the film?
Sabine: Tilda was always our preferred choice to voice the letters. We felt that she would be fantastic, even visually she strikes us as looking very similar to Gertrude Bell. So when we approached her through Thelma Schoonmaker, who is one of our executive producers, Tilda was actually thrilled to be part of it. 10 years ago she had been cast in a film to play Gertrude Bell but unfortunately that film fell apart because both the director and the screenwriter passed away. She was saddened that the film never happened, so when we approached her she already knew all about Gertrude Bell and was very thrilled to be part of our project.

Why did you decide to construct the film around Gertrude’s personal letters, using actors to voice the letters of her colleagues and friends?
Zeva: One of the things that inspired us to do the film was a biography of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach, which came out originally in the 1990s. We both travelled extensively in the Middle East and were both really gripped by Gertrude Bell’s story, once we read about it in this biography. One of the things that made it seem that Gertrude Bell was a great subject for a documentary, was how she was very complicated. She expressed so many different emotions and so many different states of mind throughout the course of her life. And, we had all the primary source documents, all of her letters, so we could, and did, trace so many of her relationships with her family and her colleagues, starting through her letters. Using the dates of those letters, we then looked in the archives of her colleagues to see how they responded. So we found these incredibly interesting conversations, and letter writing campaigns. As the film shows, she had a very acrimonious relationship with British civil commissioner, A.T. Wilson, and we saw through their archives how they each tried to get the other reassigned to London. For something as significant as the establishment of Iraq, we knew that we needed a few different voices but we also knew that we didn’t want to distract the viewer with a historical talking head. We wanted to communicate the primary source material, so that the viewer, not only through the archival footage but also through the dialogue in the film, became a fly on the wall. As if they were actually there.

You had fantastic access to all of these wonderfully written letters, so how did you manage to achieve that?
Sabine: Very early on we were introduced to Joan McIver, who was from The British Institute for the Study of Iraq. As it happened, her cousin had transcribed all of Gertrude Bell’s letters in the 1980s when she was working at Newcastle University, in the Gertrude Bell Archive. Newcastle University were delighted to be part of this film, helping us tremendously. We visited them on several occasions, going through the letters, books and folders that had not been seen before now, because they hadn’t been digitised or transcribed. We visited Durham University who have the Sudan Archives, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Balfour’s letters, and Oxford University, where T.E.Lawrence’s letters are stored. Overall everyone was very helpful in our search. We were also able to work closely with the Iraq National Library and Archive, which was very rewarding for us, as they were partially destroyed in 2003. When we began working on the film they had just started organising it again and we found some incredible material that they were happy for us to use. Overall, our collaboration will all the archives was fantastic.

We see some incredibly rare footage of early 20th Century Iraq throughout the film. Where was that sourced from and how easy or difficult was it to secure that material?
Zeva:This was one of the first challenges that we thought about when making this film, as we knew it would rely heavily on archival footage. We had to wonder how much footage we could find from 100 years ago of the Middle East. It was really quite an open question because we had not seen another film use the amount of footage that we planned to. We made a phone call to the University of South Carolina’s archive, as we had worked with them in the past. These archives contain Fox Movietone News outtakes, and you can see some of this footage at the beginning of our film, as the men unpack large crates in the harbour. That was the very first footage that we found. So we thought, if we can get that from one phone call, then we really need to explore this. In the end, we visited 25 different archives all over the world, finding quite remarkable footage in the Netherlands, France, Germany, UK, Russia and the US. At times it was quite a hunt. For example, one archive had a lot of material stored in the Library of Congress but it had never been digitised. So we had one of our executive producers go to the archives and, on an old Steenbeck editing machine, go through it piece by piece.

Iraq has remained close to the forefront of the West’s psyche for the past few decades. Was this a driving force for bringing her story to the screen?
Sabin: Initially, the idea was to make a film about Gertrude Bell as a character, this complex person who shifted between a very public persona, to a very private one. It was so surprising that no-one really knew about her, almost like she had been forgotten in history. In terms of the political connection to the Middle East today, when we started the film, the US were just leaving Iraq, so the link wasn’t as strong. Tragically, with the rise of ISIS and the break-up of Syria and the Arab Spring, these events really brought it to the foreground once again. It’s not only the political aspect but of course that the archaeological sites in the region are in such danger of being destroyed. There are many issues surrounding the story of Gertrude Bell, which are still very relevant to today.

Your careers to date have been centred on editing and producing, so what influenced you to make the step into directing?
Zeva: This is our directorial debut, which is very exciting for us. We originally met on another film called Ahead of Time about another amazing woman called Ruth Gruber, where Sabina worked on the editing, and I was the producer. We first started talking about making this film back in 2009, but it took us 3 years to get our schedules together. From that point it took us 5 years to reach this point. Honestly, it never occurred to us that we would never direct the film. We just wanted a chance for our collaborative vision to be seen.

What did you enjoy most about directing your first film?
Sabine: My profession as an editor has become very solitary over the years. I used to work with assistants when I was editing on film, but once digital editing started it became very solitary. So for me, the rewarding part of directing was working on a collaborative basis once again. Not only did Zeva and I work together, but we worked with all the actors, casting agents, researchers and our production team, which felt very rewarding.

Have you got any future projects lined up and will you continue working together as co-directors?
Zeva: We are trying to put together some initial ideas we have right now. We are definitely looking for another project that we can do together because our collaboration was very successful. We’re actively percolating. But there’s nothing unfortunately we can say right now. We haven’t had the time since wrapping up this film, as we have been concentrating on promoting it around the world.

Letters From Baghdad is released in UK cinemas on 21 April 2017.

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