Letters From Baghdad is a new documentary based on the life of Gertrude Bell who was often referred to as the female Lawrence of Arabia. Bell was a British scholar, photographer and adventurer who was thought by many to be a spy for the British Empire during World War I and its aftermath. Bell was formally recruited by British military intelligence to help draw the borders of what is now modern-day Iraq, shaping the entire Middle East in the process.
The film is based entirely on first-person correspondence written by the actual participants. Professional actors provide the talking head “interviews”, using the language of their real world counterparts. Tilda Swinton voices Gertrude Bell’s correspondence which is drawn from over 1600 letters that have been curated after her death. Historical footage is seamlessly blended with other media to provide a detailed account of Gertrude’s travels during the early 20th century.
Bell was present for post-World War nationalist Arab uprisings as Middle Eastern leaders struggled to rid themselves of British occupation. Bell provided detailed analysis to the British government so they might better understand the foreign cultures impacted by their political rule. However, many members of British intelligence were skeptical of Bell’s knowledge because she was a woman, and her expertise could not be fully trusted by her male counterparts. The sexism, racism and xenophobia documented in Letter From Baghdad is sadly reminiscent of our modern society.
Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl spent more than four years researching the film. They unearthed over 1000 vintage film clips from 25 archives from across the globe to provide a “travelogue” through the Middle East in the early 1900’s. Most of the footage had never been digitized and was culled from reels that had been in storage for more than half a century. If you think that you are watching sepia-toned recreations, you are mistaken. The footage has been meticulously compiled from original sources.
If you are a fan of documentaries and world history, then Letters From Baghdad is essential viewing. With its reliance on first-hand accounts of events and its use of actual footage from the era, it’s a journalistic dream come true. This is not history through a lens of interpretation. This is the unfiltered reality of events that took place nearly 125 years ago. It’s a remarkable recreation of the life of a historical figure who deserves wider recognition for her contribution to the politics of the Middle East.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.