In a world where the achievements of women are still overshadowed and in some cases stolen by their male counterparts, the importance of Letters From Baghdad has never been greater. Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, often referred to as the “female T.E. Lawrence” (sigh), was a monumental figure in the creation of an independent Iraqi state, advising Winston Churchill, befriending Arab sheiks and tribesmen, founding the Baghdad Antiquities Museum (now the National Museum of Iraq), and earning her moniker among the peoples she loved most as the “Queen of the Desert.”
Filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have crafted a unique documentary, one that remarkably represents their particular aesthetic as artists, while simultaneously portraying their subject in the most eloquent way possible; through her own words. Bell’s letters to family and friends as well as the her still photography of the Middle Eastern region literally write the film itself.
Letters From Baghdad flows through Bell’s life, beginning with her early years as a daughter from a wealthy family who loses her mother at a young age, to growing into a passionate young adult and student who adores her father and dreams of pursuing a life of adventure. But the film really picks up momentum when we follow Bell to her post in the Middle East, where she becomes a spy, cartographer, adventurer, and political liaison for the British government in the region. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum select the perfect letters to capture Bell’s enthusiasm of her position as she writes to her beloved father. Her voice is fearless as she writes, “I am finally a person here.”
In order to ensure a more balanced dialogue in the film, candid observations taken from letters of her colleagues including T.E. Lawrence are also included. They range from outright praise for her work to this little gem proffered by Lawrence upon their first meeting, “She was pleasant, not beautiful. She told Thompson [a fellow colleague] his ideas of digging were prehistoric. And so, we had to squash her with a display of erudition.” Mansplaining as early as 1915.
Also of note is the film’s use of archival footage. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum both cherish it and its use in Letters shows that love. The footage does not always align with the date or event being discussed but it works effectively at painting a picture of the Middle East Bell experiences, from the rich diversity of the region at the turn of the century, to the beauty of the desert and its ancient monuments. Bell’s letters in the film are read by none other than Tilda Swinton, the perfect voice to carry the gravitas of Bell’s strong personality. The letters of her colleagues are read by other actors during posed talking head interviews, all shot on 16mm film to better blend in with the early footage surrounding it. The use of archival footage, some of it never before seen, combined with the present day 16mm gives the illusion of a film that could have been made entirely in Bell’s lifetime, immersing the viewer completely in her world.
There is much controversy over the history leading up to the creation of Iraq, mainly surrounding interloping foreign influence in the region, i.e. Britain. Although Bell was an ardent supporter of the people in the region and firmly believed in their right to self-governance, it can’t be denied that her role, along with Winston Churchill and her other colleagues, led to the difficulties the region faces even today. Even her extensive knowledge of the ethnic and religious groups was not a guarantee of success. Most notably, her disappointment in Faisal, who she had championed to become the British-backed first King of Iraq at the Cairo Conference in 1921, which also began the waning of her influence over British officials. The film falls short of addressing these issues and their later consequences head on, mainly because they fall out of the film’s purview. Their absence didn’t bother me, but the painting over of some of the more complicated aspects of her power may leave some viewers skeptical.
It still pains me that even after watching Letters From Baghdad and Werner Herzog’s lackluster biopic Queen of the Desert earlier this year, I feel like I’m coming to know Gertrude too late. How can a woman with more influence than Lawrence of Arabia, a man she actually gave her maps to in aid of his trek, be at worst unknown or at best seen as a historical outlier not worthy of attention? Similar to the filmmakers, I wish that viewers take away Bell’s incredible sense of respect and interest in other cultures and people different from her own in a time when doing so is unexpected and indeed suspect. Her life of adventure and tragedy should be known by all, and Letters From Baghdad is a thoughtful beginning to the journey.
Letters From Bagdhad opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.