Fast Forward Friday with Zeva Oelbaum

Letters From Baghdad — London Premieres

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed award winning filmmaker Zeva Oelbaum. She recently co-directed and produced the NEH supported documentary Letters from Baghdad, which showed theatrically in over 150 theaters in the U.S. and U.K. and premiered on PBS in 2018. The film is voiced and exec. produced by Tilda Swinton. Oelbaum also produced Ahead of Time, a feature length documentary about journalist Ruth Gruber, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival before garnering six Best Documentary awards.  Click here to learn more.

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

I’m working with my producing partner  Sabine Krayenbühl, on a documentary film about the visionary artist and performer Loïe Fuller. The film is titled Obsessed with Light.  Fuller was the American creator of modern dance and a trailblazing inventor who became an overnight sensation in Paris in 1892. Electricity was still in its infancy, yet she invented remarkable lighting techniques, taking out numerous patents on these techniques, as well as stage design and costuming, as early as 1893. She even wanted to incorporate fluorescent materials into her costumes and worked with Thomas Edison on this project.  She was close friends with Marie Curie and Auguste Rodin, and her inventions became the foundation of today’s most elaborate multi-media productions. Fuller was one of the most famous performers in the world at the turn of the 20th century and although few people know her name, her legacy is remarkably strong. She has inspired or influenced luminaries including Taylor Swift, Alexander McQueen, and numerous other artists and designers. Both Dior and Valentino have referenced her in their recent collections.

We are thrilled that we just received a media production grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for this film project! We previously received grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and Artemis Rising, so we’re feeling very optimistic about the potential of this project to reach a broad audience.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

After the distribution of our film about Gertrude Bell, we were looking for another remarkable woman whose name has been forgotten, but whose accomplishments still resonate today. When we looked  deeply into Loïe Fuller, we found an unconventional woman who achieved success on her own terms. She disrupted conventional ideas of femininity and gender identity and had enormous respect for the power of science to transform lives. We feel that her story is surprisingly contemporary.

Q: In this current time of unprecedented change and uncertainty, what do you believe your role is in this moment?

Loïe Fuller was an outlier in many ways and her story is an inspiring one. Bringing an inspiring story to an audience is always gratifying, but during these crazy and uncertain times, inspiring stories are, perhaps, even more valuable.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

I began my career as a still photographer, so I have been most influenced by painters and photographers. So many have influenced my work — from Cy Twombley to Anna Atkins to the incredible photojournalist Robert Capa. A zillion years ago, I was an intern at the International Center of Photography and have immense respect for photojournalists. I was very fortunate that Rizzoli Int. published a monograph of my cyanotypes, which I did as an homage to Anna Atkins. Atkins was the first person to publish a book illustrated by photographs in 1843. Documentary film is actually the perfect union of my love for both photojournalism and fine art.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist? 

The feeling that I have something potentially meaningful to contribute to the contemporary conversation keeps me motivated. I feel inspired by the subjects of my films and photography projects to get their stories across.  I hate the idea of people (especially women) being forgotten and written out of history.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

Our previous film Letters From Baghdad tells the story of another incredible woman, British explorer and diplomat Gertrude Bell. Bell was sometimes called the female “Lawrence of Arabia” but she was actually much more influential than her colleague T.E. Lawrence, helping to reshape the Middle East after WWI.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

When we were originally pitching our film on Gertrude Bell, we were told by one British broadcaster “why would we be interested in a film on Gertrude Bell, since she was only a footnote to history?” I’m happy that we proved him wrong. As a result of the press for the film, Gertrude Bell finally has a Blue Plaque installed at her London residence; and her archive at Newcastle University, which we used extensively, is now on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, in recognition of its global significance. It is one of the few archives with this designation in the UK.  Bell has now been profiled in television segments, books and plays and we are very gratified that we have contributed to bringing Gertrude Bell back into the history books.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

Exactly what I am doing.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

Allowing myself to become discouraged, if I don’t succeed right away. Too many projects are still in my drawers!

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

I never leave my creative self!

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

Being timid about expressing my vision.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

Too many to choose from.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

I most admire my grandmother who passed away when I was 16 years old. She was the first person in my family to come to this country. She arrived in 1905 from the pogroms in Lithuania with a cousin when she was only 14 years old. They made their way to St. Joseph, Mo. and were soon followed by the rest of their families. My grandmother and grandfather owned several buildings, but my grandfather developed a heart condition, so the upkeep of the buildings fell to my tiny 4’10” grandmother (along with raising 5 children). During the Great Depression, there were frequently men who would get off the train looking for work and my grandmother would always have chores for them, in exchange for a hot meal. She was grateful for their help and never turned anyone away. My grandmother sent both sons to medical school, two daughters to nursing school and one daughter to teachers college. She had grit and determination and was an incredibly generous soul.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

Generosity of spirit.

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?


Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

Going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art … I’ve really missed going there this summer. It is deeply spiritual and nourishing to me.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

Not to be intimidated by people who I think know more about what I am doing than I do

Q: Where would you most like to live?

Lots of places! I like Montclair, NJ ! (where I live now)

Q: What is your idea of success?

To be productive and continually engaged in creative pursuits

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

That my family is healthy and doing well and that I am able to pursue my passions.




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