For many of us, our knowledge of Iraq began with the eruption of the Gulf War. The fallout from these conflicts subsequently forced open a far more complicated past than we had first imagined. The name Gertrude Bell may not be one that immediately springs to mind when thinking of the region, but debut directors, Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, intend to alter that perception with the release of their documentary, Letters From Baghdad.
As much as this is a retelling of an extraordinary life spent travelling across what used to be called Mesopotamia, it speaks just as clearly about a woman who gave no thought to the limitations placed upon her by a patriarchal society. Bell fell in love with the Middle East upon her arrival, absorbing the culture and boldly exploring the mountainous terrains without fear. She was a traveller at heart, learning several languages and publishing a number books based on her experiences.
Her story is told through the personal letters she wrote back home to England, mostly to a father she loved dearly, revealing her inner most thoughts and emotions. She was a natural writer, thus eloquently managing to express herself with ease. Tilda Swinton provides the voice of Bell, a perfect choice from the directors, which brings this inspiring woman to life. Hearing such an intimate perspective places us at the heart of history as it happened. At the conclusion of World War I, Bell was employed by the British military, while a new Middle East was shaped in the shadow of the old Ottoman Empire.
The military relied on Bell’s knowledge and regional influence as they attempted to force in a new regime and democracy. It was here that the borders of Iraq were drawn out by Bell, leading a team that included both T.E.Lawrence and Winston Churchill. Rare footage of early 20th century Iraq provides the background to Swinton’s readings, showing a country rarely seen in the West and feeling like another world entirely. To provide a wider context of who Bell was, actors recite letters from colleagues and friends, dressed as the characters themselves. By all accounts, her unwillingness to suffer fools made her particularly difficult to work with, and the film makes no attempt to shy away from those faults.
Bell passionately believed the British approach in the region was wholly unfair and she fought tooth and nail to present the Arab point of view. Of course, this sort of bull-in-a-China-shop approach by the West sounds eerily familiar. That her pivotal role in the creation of Iraq was airbrushed out of history can only be because of her gender. It is a wrong that the directors successfully address in this documentary; the story of a writer, traveller and diplomat, who changed the world as we know it.
Read the full interview with the film's directors here: The Filmmakers
The story of Gertrude Bell brought faithfully to the big screen