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MENTORING MATTERS - Thinking Outside The Doc Box: A Great Mentor Will Push You To Look Beyond The Familiar Turf

Posted By Zeva Oelbaum, Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I came to producing from a career as a still life photographer—running my own studio for more than 20 years in NYC. About five years ago, I joined forces with acclaimed documentary editor Sabine Krayenbühl and we established an independent production company. Sabine and I had worked together years earlier on a film that I produced and she edited. We immediately began development on a documentary film about Gertrude Bell—sometimes referred to as the female “Lawrence of Arabia”—a British spy, explorer and political powerhouse who helped draw the borders of Iraq after World War I, before being written out of history. We each planned to wear several hats—I would produce, Sabine would edit, and we would co-direct.

We had an ambitious vision for our film, Letters From Baghdad, but knew we needed guidance in navigating the challenges of producing and funding a historical doc about a long dead (and non-American) subject. As luck would have it, Wendy Neuss, co-chair of the PGA East Mentoring Committee, attended the very first screening of our trailer. She knew I was a PGA member and immediately suggested that I apply for the Mentoring Program. I was delighted to be accepted. Through the program, I was connected to Julie Goldman, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning producer of such films as Life, Animated and Weiner. Julie was incredibly generous about sharing her precious time and ideas.

I knew that most of the foundations awarding funding for documentaries focused on social issue films, and the film had already been turned down by a few. Julie encouraged me to think outside the box and to consider international broadcasters, funders and European co-producers. She highly recommended attending the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in order to meet this community of professionals. The result was several essential connections: a French co-producer who brought us a deal with ARTE/France, a contact at the BBC who also purchased broadcast rights and even a descendent of Gertrude Bell, who opened the door to all of Bell’s extended family. Julie was a great problem solver and her guidance was truly helpful.

Although it was a long haul with plenty of challenges and obstacles, Letters From Baghdad was theatrically released this summer in the U.K. and U.S., far exceeding our expectations. The film was recently broadcast in France and Germany and is scheduled for its BBC premiere later this year.

The PGA Mentoring Program was a major part of our success. I continue to be grateful for the advice and support of both Julie and Mentoring Committee chairs Wendy Neuss and Volga Calderon.

Tags:  mentoring matters 

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