Interview: Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters From Baghdad

This weekend, a film about one of the most influential figures in early 20th century Middle Eastern history is opening in Philadelphia and I’m willing to bet you have never heard of her. That’s right, her. The film is Letters From Baghdad and the woman at the center of it all is Gertrude Margaret Lothian Bell. From her camelback excursions across uncharted Arabian desert, she forged lasting relationships with sheiks and tribesmen alike, gaining their respect and becoming an invaluable source of knowledge for the British government in the region. By advising Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell helped pave the road to the future of an independent Iraqi state.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Letters From Baghdad filmmakers Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum about their journey in bringing this incredible woman to life through her own words and photographs, as well as never before seen archival footage of the late 19th and early 20th century Middle East. A world Gertrude Bell knew and loved best.

Filmmakers Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum

Cinedelphia: Prior to Werner Herzog’s film Queen of the Desert released earlier this year, and Letters From Baghdad, I was unaware of the greatness of Gertrude Bell. What insight do you have as to why she has been ruthlessly left out of the history?

Zeva Oelbaum: We were astonished when we read Janet Wallach’s biography Desert Queen that this woman completely escaped our notice. When we started to work on the film and look at Gertrude’s letters and research other primary source materials we got more and more surprised by what we found. I do believe she was written out of history because she was a woman. We have so much documentation of that. One small thing that is in the film is the minutes of the Cairo Conference, where you can see she attends meetings with only five or six other people. She’s a big presence at the Cairo Conference as an advisor to Churchill, then if you go back and look at memoirs of some of the other officials who attended the conference, she is not mentioned. She’s totally eliminated in those memoirs.

Sabine Krayenbühl: Just recently it came to our attention that there was a biography written about Churchill by American author William Manchester. It’s an expansive biography and in the book is a photograph from the Cairo Conference, a famous photograph where Churchill is positioned to Gertrude’s right, and T.E. Lawrence is to her left. And the caption reads, Winston Churchill, “a friend,” and T.E. Lawrence. So even something like that gives you a cue as to why she was eclipsed. In the beginning of our film we include numerous newspaper headlines. At the time she was really well-known, she was in all the papers and after her death there were tons of obituaries written about her. So it’s clear that she left a mark not just by making history but by being in the media at the time. History was just rewritten, that’s what is comes down too.

C: When you decided to finally give Gertrude the stage she deserves, did you have an idea of what you wanted the film to be about, or did Gertrude’s letters themselves guide you in choosing a specific direction for the film?

ZO: We knew we really wanted to focus on her at the height of her power. We knew what was most remarkable about Gertrude Bell was the fact that she was so pivotal in this period of the establishment of Iraq. She was a powerhouse in a time when women had no power at all. So we knew that was the main focus of the narrative. We also wanted to include what happened at the end of her life, after she was at the top of her game so to speak, to her death from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Just “a friend.” The three figures just under the Sphinx’s head from the left: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence.

SK: Also it was clear for us that the letters would be the meat of the story that we wanted to tell, a story from her point of view. Historical documentaries are often told through the use of establishing context with historians and analyzing the history and we didn’t want to do that because we felt it would be more immediate and effective for an audience to actually experience time as it existed through the eyes of Gertrude Bell. In that sense, the letters became the narrative. Then we extended it to include the letters and memoirs of her contemporaries to start more of a dialogue.

C: Was it difficult to parse through all the primary documents and choose the letters that end up in the film?

ZO: Well Gertrude left 1,600 letters just to her friends and family! Those letters were donated decades ago to New Castle University in England. We are always happy to mention our friends at the archives at New Castle. Sabine and I went through her letters and certain things just jumped out at us. We have a very extensive database, as most documentaries do to keep track of footage, but we expanded ours to include snippets of Bell’s letters and still photographs. So we could go back and forth in the database between the photographs, the footage and the letters. We would read something and say, “Oh, this is amazing we need to put this in the film,” so of course we had pages and pages of material we felt would be wonderful in the film. It was a process of us whittling it down. It was a very long process. We could have made a four part series on Gertrude Bell and what she wrote in her letters.

C: In her letters, Gertrude goes from describing herself as finally a “person” when she begins her post in the Middle East, then later as “not a person” when her influences wane. How do you think women today can relate to Gertrude’s reflections of herself throughout her life?

SK: Well in Gertrude’s case, it definitely has to do with finding herself as a recognizable person in the East, as someone viewed as a person of importance. She’s meeting with sheiks, she’s being written about by Turkish authorities as someone to watch in the British Empire, and then later on when her influence wanes she acknowledges it because she is aware of the kind of power she had in a moment in time. The British officers that she has been working with all these years in Iraq leave and are replaced with newer, younger people who are less aware of her stature. They view her as this older woman and it clearly gets to her as we see in her later letters. I think that’s what women today will relate too. I feel that when women get older they are seen as less important and not seen as sources of great knowledge that could be helpful.

C: Letters From Baghdad has an extensive list of influential collaborators, including Tilda Swinton and Thelma Schoonmaker. How important for you was it to work with these filmmakers?

The Boss Lady herself, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell

ZO: It was a very organic process. Sabine has a relationship with Thelma, so she had been talking to her for some time about her interest in working on a film about Gertrude Bell. When we started working together on the project I also was connected to Kevin Brownlow and we knew we wanted to get him on board because he is a world expert on early cinema and silent films. We also knew that we wanted Tilda Swinton to read Gertrude’s letters. She was our first choice because we wanted to make sure that the project was not just a dusty historical documentary. Our aesthetic and way of working with archival footage is pretty specific to us and we thought that Tilda would bring a really interesting perspective.

We also decided to go for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and that led us to bring on academic advisors to the project. The other key partner was the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, formerly known as The Gertrude Bell Memorial. So that is basically an organization dedicated to Gertrude Bell in London, and they in turn connected us to New Castle University where all her letters are kept. So because we were working on the project for 5 years, we were very naturally able to build a community of people who were enormously supportive and helpful and experts in their field who could benefit us.

C: You mentioned Kevin Brownlow and his expertise in early cinema, and I know you are equally as enamored with archival footage. Can you tell me more about how this mutual interest got started?

SK: Zeva and I worked on another film called Ahead of Time about an equally trailblazing woman named Ruth Gruber. On that film we worked with archival footage and our mutual love for the beauty of archival footage, its decay, as well as the fun of hunting it down helped bring us together. One of the things we wanted to do in Letters From Baghdad, and what makes this film different from other films that use archival footage, is that in our film the footage takes center stage. In other films it’s usually used as a way to illustrate, or what is referred to as B-roll. But in our film the footage is an equal part of the story.

C: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

ZO: The answer to this question has shifted over the last five years. When we began this project we were really interested in showing Gertrude Bell as a forgotten woman who was an inspiring figure. And that is, of course, still important. Now, in light of the changes in the world and the changes in American politics, one of the things we admire most about Gertrude Bell is her appreciation of cultures that are very different from her own. Her love of diversity and respect for other people. She was a champion of tolerance and bringing people together. We feel like that is a bit of an urgent conversation right now, so that is something that we hope comes through to the viewer.

Letters From Baghdad opens in Philly theaters today.

Author: Jill Malcolm

Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.

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