LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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Gertude Bell seated on camelback between Winston Churchill (left) and T.E. Lawrence on a visit to Egypt, in the documentary LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD. Photo courtesy of Between The Rivers Productions (c)

Did you ever wonder how the Middle East got to be the way it is? Many experts believe part of the answer to some of the region’s modern tensions lies in how national boundaries were drawn by European colonial powers after World War I. That a British woman played a role in the shaping of the boundaries of the Middle East – Iraq in particular – is a little known fact. That woman, Gertrude Bell, is the focus of the documentary LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD.

In a time when women were rarely independent, the strong-willed and aristocratic Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was a unique exception, traveling alone to the Middle East, and then immersing herself in the culture and history of the region, and ultimately becoming an expert on Iraq, then called Mesopotamia. Born in the late 19th century at her wealthy family’s lavish mansion in Yorkshire, England, she traveled to the Middle East at a young age and rarely returned home to Britain. With the support of her doting father, Bell spent her lifetime in the Middle East as an explorer, archaeologist, government official and sometimes spy, and authored scholarly papers and more. Bell did much to shape Iraq in particular ,while serving as an expert adviser on the area to the powers-that-be in the British government and as an official in the colonial administration. Her wide influence earned her the nickname “the female Lawrence of Arabia.”

Of course, Bell’s letters to family and friends didn’t just come from Baghdad, but from all over the Middle East. Bell wandered throughout the area occupied by the Ottoman Empire in the years before World War I, investigating antiquities and archaeology, and getting to know the peoples, cultures and language of the area. But Bell’s extensive study of the people, and even family genealogies, of the region played a crucial role in the formation of post-WWI Iraq, whose borders were drawn by the British colonial power under the influence of American oil companies.

All this sounds eerily familiar today in modern Iraq. Gertrude Bell deserves both credit and blame, along with the British government and oil companies, for the current shape of Iraq, both its borders and its fractured religious and ethnic composition. However, Bell, like T.E. Lawrence, originally envisioned a self-ruling and independent Iraq, something neither of them got.

Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl aim to lift this strong female figure out of obscurity and restore her place in history. This ambitious documentary is a worthy effort but not always a successful one.

Bell was a woman who defied gender-role limits and was a bold and outspoken person. Although she played a role similar T.E. Lawrence, to whom she was often compared and who was among her acquaintances along with Winston Churchill, today Gertrude Bell is a forgotten person. Watching this documentary suggests that her obscurity might be partly, even mostly, due to her gender, when you compare her career to the better known Lawrence of Arabia.

The film is a revealing look at an unjustly overlooked woman, presented in a visually intriguing style. The documentary uses black and white archival footage, clips of films set in the region and still photos, some shot by Bell herself. Those images are present along with narration, by actors playing various historical figures in Bell’s life, also in black and white to match the archival footage and stills. Tilda Swinton (who is also an executive producer on the film) reads from Bell’s many letters, but we only see photos of the real Bell, not Swinton dressed as her.

The film is clearly well-researched and presents a wealth of source material and documents. When the film falls short is in organizing this material into a clear narrative that ties it in well with both Bell’s time and the present Iraq. The focus in very much on Bell personally, but historical events or shifts are not always well-integrated into the story line. Some historic moments are murky and details are confusing, meaning the film is more a biography than the bio-history it should be.

The documentary does not shy away from showing Bell’s flaws and quirks.. Despite her curiosity about and love of the Middle East, she was still very much a product of British ruling-class values and views. Bell was not always an admirable person and reflected the class prejudices and colonial attitudes of her time. While being a strong advocate for self-rule for the local peoples, she also seems to embrace a certain romanticism, common in her era, of the “exotic East” and belief in monarchy and the importance of a ruling class, albeit a regional one, in charge.

Bell was a woman of contradictions. While living immersed in the Middle East, Bell still loved clothes and maintained a large wardrobe of fashionable and expensive clothes. Even traveling to places where no European woman had ever gone, by camel or on horseback, Bell dressed in elegant fashion. When Bell’s father wrote to her late in her life, complaining about money and asking her to “come home” to northern England, Bell failed to see the connection to her free-spending life and insisted she needed to stay on to finish her work at the Iraq museum (the one looted during the early weeks of the Iraq War – a fact not mentioned in the film). Bell was an independent woman in an era that didn’t value that and was not considered very attractive, she nonetheless had a couple of romantic attachments, although she never married.

Bell seems to have been well-liked in her upper-crust social circle of her peers, influential Europeans and powerful Middle Eastern families, but her class prejudices and imperious manner did not make her popular among others. Bell’s focus on the local ruling families allowed her to make connections and gather detailed information about the region’s history and even their family histories, but perhaps blinded her to other factors. Bell asserted that Iraqi Jewish families, who were numerous at that time, would play an important role in the future of the country. She wrote a paper noting the presence of the Kurds and detailing the divide between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in what was then called Mesopotamia, but failed to see how those divisions would play out in the country the British created to serve their own purposes.

Many of Bell’s shortcomings are mentioned in passing in the film, but the directors makes little or no effort to put them into historical context or to directly point out their modern-day implications. While all the black and white footage is evocative and the actors playing historic characters make the story immersive and involving, it would be nice to have a more focused narrative structure. Instead the film is mostly chronological. Some stills or footage give a year and place but others do not, leaving one to wonder if they are old movie clips or re-creations.

Bell’s story is ultimately tragic, both on a personal level and in how things went wrong for Iraq. As time moved on, Bell went from a person at the very top of colonial power, rubbing elbows with Churchill and Lawrence and sought out for her knowledge, to a marginalized and often forgotten figure. Clearly, Bell keenly felt the fall from power and influence.

Despite its flaws, this documentary is worth one’s patience simply to learn about this important but forgotten historical figure, and a remarkable woman far ahead of her time. LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD opens Friday, June 30, at the Tivoli Theater.

Letters From Baghdad poster