Director Ben Loeterman talks to realscreen about navigating the origins of the conflict between Palestinians and Jews during the last days of the Ottoman Empire in the PBS documentary 1913: Seeds of Conflict.
Ben Loeterman knew he did not pick the easiest subject when he decided to make a documentary about the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
As a self-described “West Coast reformed Jew,” the documentary filmmaker has seen differing views on the issue play out at home. He says his LA-based son is critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, while a daughter living in Jerusalem sees the conflict as part of an ancient struggle.
“I have to spend four days a year together with my kids in Cape Cod,” he says. “That’s enough to propel my curiosity.”
1913: Seeds of Conflict (pictured), which premieres on PBS on June 30 at 10 p.m. EST/PST, started when a friend gave Loeterman – whose credits include The People vs. Leo Frank and The War That Made America – former Wall Street Journal correspondent Amy Dockser Marcus’ book Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
That led him to a group of young scholars who were preparing to visit the Ottoman Imperial archives in Istanbul, which had opened previously sealed documents for the first time. Around the same time, the Jerusalem Cinematheque had begun to digitize a long-lost documentary, The Life of the Jews of Palestine, directed by Noah Sokolovsky, shot in 1913 and recently re-discovered in a Paris storage facility.
The film shows what are believed to be the earliest moving images recorded in the Holy Land, and becomes a jumping-off point for Loeterman’s thesis that Arabs and Jewish settlers lived together in relative harmony prior to the outbreak of the First World War and the rise of Jewish and Arab nationalism.
As the financing for 1913: Seeds of Conflict came together – from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as PBS and Public Television Viewers – the scholars who had visited the Ottoman archive in Turkey were starting to turn their dissertations into books.
Loeterman interweaves their points of view with archival footage and dramatized interviews with historical figures based on such source material as personal letters, government documents and newspaper stories from the era.
“I liked bouncing around the point of view rather than trying to tell one, objective story thread,” Loeterman explains, adding that five languages are spoken in the film. “It dawned on me, if the film is not just in English, people are going to have to read the subtitles, so it gave viewers something to do with their eye and it took the pressure off the performances.”
He sought out actors who could represent the proper dialects and character details, which became extra important if there was no visual record for the historical figure being portrayed.
“As part of a documentary, I think there’s an obligation to get the texture of the film right as well as the facts,” he explains. “That’s very important to me.”
Focusing on specific – even mundane – details was one way Loeterman sought to debunk nostalgia and mythologizing around the founding of the Jewish state. By featuring first-person testimony from political, legal and business figures that played key roles in land deals in Palestine, Seeds of Conflict attempts to put long-ago historical events in terms that are relatable to contemporary viewers.
“People talk about Zionism but nobody talks about, ‘How did they really get the land again?’” says Loeterman. “How did it really come together?”
He also focuses on what he calls “the sense of coffee-house culture” in Jerusalem at the time. Now a divided city, Jews, Christians and Muslims intermingled and lived together in the quarters of the old city in what one scholar describes as a “workable” multi-ethnic, multi-linguist society.
Once the 4K digital transfer of The Life of the Jews of Palestine was complete and Loeterman was able to view more than a few clips of the film, he was struck by how its framing foreshadowed what would become a political reality.
“In the scenes of Zionist progress, you see just how marginalized Arabs become and how they seem to be physically pushed to the ends of the frame of the film,” he says. “As I was doing the research I could not watch the film because I couldn’t get a decent copy from the Cinematheque. I had a sense of it but I hadn’t seen it. Then, I was just startled when I saw the thing crisp, clean and clear and suddenly the message seemed a little more crisp and clear as well.”
1913: Seeds of Conflict has screened at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, as well as Jewish and Palestinian film festivals and Middle Eastern Studies departments at Harvard University and other post-secondary institutions.
“It’s a film that begs and deserves discussion,” summarizes Loeterman.
Watch a clip from 1913: Seeds of Conflict below: