Film Review: Letters from Baghdad

A fascinating documentary about Gertrude Bell, frequently dubbed “the female Lawrence of Arabia,” that could have been even better with more exposition and historical context.
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Letters From Baghdad tells the extraordinary and little-known story of Gertrude Bell, explorer, adventurer and British spy who is often dubbed the female “Lawrence of Arabia.” Indeed, some contend she was far more influential than her friend and colleague T. E. Lawrence in shaping the destiny of Iraq in the post-World War I years in ways that still resonate today.

Marking the directorial debut of Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, the documentary brings to life a woman who was stunningly ahead of her time and profoundly of it; a proper Victorian lady and a feminist trailblazer; fiercely rebellious and totally dependent on her father’s approval; a patrician rooted in British aristocracy and an early celebrant of cultural diversity. She was most at home in the Middle East, though in later years she straddled the two worlds, feeling comfortable in neither.

Born in 1868 the granddaughter of a wealthy British ironmaster, Gertrude was raised by a loving stepmother (her own mother died when she was three) and her father, Sir Hugh Bell, with whom she had an intensely close relationship. A brilliant student, she attended Oxford University and was the first woman to receive the highest honors in Modern History. She was fluent in more than five languages and published six scholarly books, including an English translation of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez. She was the first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörner range in the Swiss Alps and the first woman to undertake a solo journey into the uncharted Arabian Desert, traveling by camel for 1,500 miles across Central Arabia in 1914.

Bell provided Lawrence (20 years her junior) with the tribal notes and maps he used during the Arab Revolt and in 1915 was recruited by British Military Intelligence, becoming the first female military intelligence officer and the only woman with a diplomatic role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and (invited by Winston Churchill) at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

On the personal front, she had two tragic love affairs (it’s not clear whether either was consummated) with a junior diplomat at the British embassy whom her father viewed as an unemployable gambler and refused to support, and with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man.

In later years she returned to one of her early avocations, archaeology, and established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, which survived intact until the American invasion in 2003 when the institution was looted. On July 12, 1926, at the age of 58, Gertrude Bell died from an overdose of sleeping pills. Though friends said she was depressed, it was never officially determined if her death was an accident or deliberate suicide. She is buried in Baghdad.

The story is told entirely in Bell’s words and those of her contemporaries excerpted verbatim from their intimate letters, private diaries and official documents. Bell left more than 1,600 letters and 7,000 photographs. Among her many talents, she was an accomplished photographer. The film also incorporates hundreds of archival, grainy black-and-white 35mm film clips the creative team uncovered and ultimately digitally preserved during four years of research.

Bell’s words are voiced by Tilda Swinton (who also served as one of the film’s producers), while the other “characters” are played by various actors whom we see onscreen as if they are being interviewed. These snippets interwoven throughout—and they’re slightly discombobulating in their self-conscious theatricality—are shot on 16mm film in order to suggest a documentary that could have been made in the late 1920s after Bell’s death. In an effort to create an immersive and wholly authentic experience, the filmmakers chose to use only primary source material.

It’s an interesting but not fully satisfying narrative choice, as it presupposes—or doesn’t care about—the viewer’s background knowledge (geographical, historical, cultural and/or political). The film is wonderful in introducing the world to Bell. Still, watching it is not unlike entering a conversation in the middle with neither introduction nor framework to what’s being discussed. If ever a film screamed out for a little exposition, context and yes, talking heads offering plain old instruction, this is it. For example, the British occupation of Iraq and the drawing of its borders—Bell played a pivotal role here—are controversial to this day. We needed to know much more about that, and it might have been useful to hear a few thoughts on how Bell’s economic status and circumstances informed her views, choices and actions.

On the flip side, the film presents such an original, unlikely portrait—certainly a more three-dimensional spin than Werner Herzog’s loosely conceived biopic Queen of the Desert (2015), starring Nicole Kidman—that it may prompt viewers to research the region’s geopolitical history as well as bone up on Bell herself by, say, reading Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally ofLawrence of Arabia, by Janet Wallach (2005).

Whatever the medium, there’s no way to avoid the fact that unlike T.E. Lawrence, Bell largely disappeared from the public’s imagination. But to view her strictly through a feminist lens is reductive and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t. Indeed, another image lingers.

Bell was no victim and not entirely likeable. She was as arrogant as she was insightful and prescient. She lived the life she wanted. Her work was her first and lasting passion. Yet it was also her escape. Towards the end she says as much, revealing herself to be a Chekhovian figure too.

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