Tom Symmons reports from Birds Eye View’s first special screening of Letters From Baghdad, which is out now in UK cinemas and on VoD…
Sands Films Studio in Rotherhithe recently hosted a preview of Letters from Baghdad, a new documentary about the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926): the little known author, archaeologist, explorer, spy and diplomat who was highly influential in forming the modern state of Iraq. It seeks to set the historical record straight regarding the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’ – a lazy reference and reflection of the patriarchal attitudes that continue to shape historical knowledge and understanding.
Bell is in fact a significant figure in history who deserves to be considered in her own right, who possessed a deeper knowledge of Arab politics and culture than her famous rival and contemporary, T. E. Lawrence, and held more sway in British colonial affairs, and thus deserves far greater recognition. After the screening, directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum responded to questions ranging from their search for the elusive filmed footage of Bell, to the documentary’s relevance to the present day situation in the Middle East.
Krayenbühl and Oelbaum were initially inspired by Janet Wallach’s biography Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia (1996), before undertaking extensive primary research in some 25 archives around the globe. From the impressive array of primary texts, original photographs and archival footage they uncovered, the filmmakers meticulously constructed a compelling visual and oral portrait of Bell spanning her childhood up until her untimely death in Baghdad, aged 57.
The film covers her privileged upbringing in County Durham and the death of her mother, through her time as an outstanding student at Oxford university, to her mountaineering exploits in the French Alps. Its major focus is Bell’s strong affinity for the people, culture and landscape of the Middle East: she lived, travelled and worked in the region for many years, developing a sophisticated understanding of tribal culture and politics, and a profound respect for the Arab way of life. Bell’s unique knowledge and experience gained her entry into the male inner sanctum of British colonial power, where, as a political attaché, she had a direct hand in policy making.
This centred on the establishment and administration of the modern state of Iraq: an artificial, self-governing state favourable to British imperial interests, which included access to the region’s plentiful oil reserves. The film’s obvious topicality – the clear link between British colonial policy in the Middle East and the causes of the Iraq War and wider conflict in the region – increases its impact, casting Bell and her achievements in a decidedly ambiguous light.
To lend the film a sense of historical authenticity, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum decided to create a script from letters, diaries and correspondences. This personal insider’s view of Bell’s life helps engage audience interest; Tilda Swinton reads from Bell’s 1600 letters in voiceover. Verbatim extracts from the materials written by her lovers, friends, colleagues and acquaintances, delivered talking head-style by actors, provide further narrative information. These also present Bell as a complex and contradictory character through multiple and often conflicting perspectives: intelligent, independent, fearless, driven, both charming and snobbish; paradoxically both an insider and outsider.
The film makes good use of still images of Bell but her character is not brought to life by an actor on screen, which helps limit audience empathy and maintain a degree of historical and intellectual distance. The archival footage used in the documentary – most notably never seen before colour-tinted Movietone newsreel outtakes – affords a rare window into the Middle East of the early 20th century. Ironically and unfortunately, it has been claimed that the rumoured extant footage of Bell shot in Iraq was lost when the archive housing it was damaged following the US invasion in 2003.
Coincidentally, the release of Letters from Baghdad follows Werner Herzog’s big screen dramatisation of Bell’s life, Queen of the Desert (2017), which was poorly received by critics and highlights the pressing need for more artful, balanced and well-researched films about female historical personages. Herzog’s film is flat, muddled and suffers from romantic epic clichés. Unsurprisingly for a Hollywood historical biopic of a woman, it focuses not on Bell’s achievements but her intimate relationships with men. Here history takes a back seat in a tale of tragic love.
The post-screening question and answer session covered many aspects of the documentary’s production as well as its relevance to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum stated that Bell’s involvement in the birth of the modern state of Iraq set the scene for contemporary events and controversies, and suggested that there were timely parallels between the American military intervention and British colonial missteps: both Britain and the US grossly underestimated the strength of nationalist resentment and enacted policies that deepened sectarian tensions.
These mistakes are part of Bell’s legacy but she should be judged, the filmmakers contended, as a product of her time – of the British colonial period – adding that the “real tragedy” is that the same mistakes are being made again.
Letters From Baghdad is being released by Verve Pictures.