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Kate Seelye Behind the Lens: Kate Seelye

Kate Seelye has been reporting for U.S. public radio and television shows in the Middle East for the last six years. She has produced and reported two half-hour programs on Lebanon and Hamas for PBS's Frontline/World. Her radio work for NPR and PRI's The World has taken her from Algeria to Iran to explore political, religious and social developments.  In 2004 she was part of an NPR team that won an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Press Award for regional coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She is currently working on a documentary about America's relationship to the Arab world.

POV: In your work, you consider the notion of "borders." What is a border to you?

Kate Seelye: Working in the Middle East, a border usually suggests an obstacle or a source of conflict. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon six years ago, the U.N. drew a "blue line," demarcating Lebanon from Israel. But not all parties in the region, like Hezbollah, agreed with the path of the blue line, arguing that certain Lebanese land remained within Israel. They played on ambiguities in the drawing of borders back in the 1920s to reject the U.N.’s contemporary interpretation of frontiers (the U.N. was quoted as saying it had identified the border "based on the best available cartographic and other documentary evidence available"). Hezbollah claims Israel still occupies Lebanese land and justifies ongoing resistance against its neighbor. In reporting on this conflict, I've often had to confront questions like, who gets to draw borders, which borders count and what's the point of a border, if it's not agreed upon by all parties to a conflict?

In addition to being an endless source of conflict, borders here are very much sites of state power, where authorities communicate their political agenda. As an American, I am able to cross relatively easily into Israel from Jordan, while Palestinians traveling with me are forced to wait long hours at the border, subjected to an altogether different kind of scrutiny. Conversely as a journalist traveling to Syria, I have to put in a request to the Ministry of Information and wait several days, hoping that nothing I've written has gotten me permanently banned from the country.

All of this makes me nostalgic for an era that my grandparents knew — an era before borders were drawn in the region. Working on my current documentary project, "At Home in the Garden of Eden," about my family's long history in the Arab world, I've spent a lot of time archiving family photos. They show my grandparents traversing the region in a 1920 Ford, traveling from Beirut to Aleppo to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem, prior to the formal establishment of borders in the region.  They took weekend trips to places I have to plan days in advance to reach or simply cannot get to by car at all any more. Many in the region, like myself, dream of a time when conflicts will be resolved and borders will become mere formalities.

POV: What borders did you encounter while working on your pieces?

Seelye: The American University of Beirut, where I shot my interviews, is a very cosmopolitan campus. Many of the Lebanese and other Arab students there have traveled quite extensively in the U.S. and Europe and are totally immersed in Western culture. Many can talk eloquently about the pop sensibilities of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction or why they prefer LA to New York.  Regardless, many view the U.S. in politically oppositional terms and assumptions are made about Americans and their understanding of the Arab world. In conducting a series of interviews with groups of students who did not know me, I had to build trust and overcome pre-conceived notions that I was biased (i.e. anti-Arab) or had a limited understanding of the Arab world. The mere fact that I had reported in the region for many years did not privilege me in any way. Rather, I found that laying out my family history enabled me to make a case that my interest in the area was more than purely expedient - it was based on something deep and sincere. In this politically charged period, almost any kind of encounter between me and someone in this region is fraught with potential misunderstanding.

POV: What is possible when innovative approaches to narrative and interactivity are combined? How is your piece different from traditional storytelling?

Seelye: As a television or radio story teller, I am limited by time constraints and the linear format of both these mediums.  I have to make choices about what to keep in and what to take out.

POV: Expand our borders. What's a book, movie, piece of music, website, etc., that challenges or engages with the idea of "borders" that we should know about but perhaps don't?

Seelye: Just as borders can be drawn and adjusted, they can be blurred. One of my favorite films is Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up. Based on a true story, a film lover deceives a family into believing he's the popular Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Although we know we're watching a piece of fiction, Kiarostami blurs the line between fiction and reality by having the true life characters re-enact their own story on film. In Close-Up, it becomes almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.

Another engaging film that deals with the issue of borders is Palestinian director, Hani Abu Assad's Paradise Now. Two suicide bombers set off on a horrific mission. They are meant to be stopped by a wall that was constructed to divide Israel from the West Bank and to thwart potential suicide bombers. In fact the "separation wall," (in some places it's a fence, as it is in Paradise Now) is totally porous. The two suicide bombers pass through it several times. Abu Assad's meaning is clear; walls can be built but are futile endeavors in the face of human will. Solutions, he suggests, lie beyond physical barriers.

POV: What are you working on next? Where can we see more of your work?

Seelye: I just finished reporting a half-hour documentary on Hamas for Frontline/World. It will appear Tuesday, May 9, 2006 at 9pm on PBS stations. I also just finished a rough cut of my documentary project "At Home in the Garden of Eden" and am looking for financing to complete the edit. In the meantime, I will continue to report radio stories for PRI's The World.