Film review – Letters from Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, 2017)

Synopsis (taken from the official website)

Letters from Baghdad tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum. Why has she been written out of history?


Review

First-time directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have chosen an interesting topic for their debut feature. Gertrude Bell may not be a household name to most, but based on the evidence here she should be. Mixing archive video footage and voice-overs from Tilda Swinton and a host of other character actors, the film brings to life her letters from an important time during Iraq’s formative years.

Bell lived from 1868 to 1926 and was a truly independent woman, defining her life with a series of firsts. She was the first woman to receive a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University in Modern History, the first woman to journey solo into the Arabian desert (1500 miles on a camel across Central Arabia), was the only female diplomat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

This film concentrates more on her time in Baghdad, critical to the formation of what we now know as Iraq. Her involvement came in the final for years of her life, but in that time she managed to define the borders out of the then-named Mesopotamia, before helping in the formative administration of the country and the controversial installation of their first monarch ruler: King Faisal bin Hussein. She was a good choice to spearhead the tasks due to her knowledge of the area after her extensive travels and relationships and understanding of local knowledge.

To appreciate the film fully it’s probably worth knowing what to expect. It is very much a narrative in the form of a book. It may have taken a considerable amount of time to research and compile the video footage from stock libraries around the world, but the visual result is only minimally engaging. There are many photographs from Bell’s personal collection but no video footage of her directly. This is neither good nor bad, just a matter of fact.

The letters and statements from other people associated to her – relatives, friends and colleagues – aren’t simply narrated. Instead, they are delivered in a talking head style to the camera. It may sound unusual, but it does work and there’s no better way to achieve an entertaining result.

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a penetrable route into the life and achievements of one of the greatest women of her time. It may have its flaws but as a ninety minute film it should reach a wider audience than if they published her letters in book form.

A solid documentary.