LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD — Review by Cate Marquis

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Middle East experts often point to how national boundaries were drawn by European colonial powers after World War I as essential to understanding region’s modern tensions. A little known fact is that a British woman played a central role in the shaping of those boundaries – Iraq in particular. That woman, Gertrude Bell, is the focus of the documentary LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD from directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl. Continue reading…

Tilda Swinton gives voice to Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell by reading her letters home to family and friends. 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 northern England in the late 19th century to a wealthy family. Bell traveled to the Middle East at a young age and rarely returned. 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 might sound 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, like T.E. Lawrence (among her acquaintances along with Winston Churchill) Bell originally envisioned a self-ruling, independent Iraq, something neither of them got.

Directors Oelbaum and Krayenbuhl aim to lift this strong female figure out of obscurity and restore her place in history. This ambitious documentary is a worthy effort although not always a successful one. On the plus side is the film’s 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 documentary does not shy away from showing Bell’s flaws and quirks, such as her expensive, fashionable wardrobe, even when traveling by camel. The film is clearly well-researched and presents a wealth of source material and documents. Where the film falls short is in organizing this material into a clear narrative, one that ties it in well with both Bell’s own time and the present Iraq.

Still, LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD is a documentary worth one’s effort, simply to learn about this important but forgotten historical figure, and a remarkable woman far ahead of her time.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Letters from Baghdad is AWFJ’s pick for Movie of the Week (#MOTW) for July 7 to 14, 2017.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.