×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Letters From Baghdad’

Influential Arabist Gertrude Bell is brought to life in a carefully researched documentary that features a wealth of archival footage accompanied by Tilda Swinton’s voiceover.

Director:
Zeva Oelbaum, Sabine Krayenbühl.
With:
Michael Higgs, Eric Loscheider, Rachael Stirling, Adam Astill, Helen Ryan, Joanna David, Elizabeth Rider, Jürgen Kalwa, Tom Chadbon, Simon Chandler, Lucy Robinson, Andrew Havill, Antony Edridge, Nicolas Woodeson, Zaydum Khalad, Michelle Eugene, Mark Meadows, Ahmed Hashimi, Ammar Haj Ahmad, Hayat Kamille, Christoper Villiers, Jasper Jacob.   Voices of: Tilda Swinton, Rose Leslie, Izak Atiyas, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens, Nicholas Hunt, Pete R. Day, Mohamad Hodeib, Robert Ian MacKenzie, Richard Poe. (English, Arabic dialogue)
Release Date:
Jun 2, 2017

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6086614/reference

After the misfire of biopic “Queen of the Desert,” it was clear that intrepid traveler and influential Arabist Gertrude Bell, reductively known as “the female T.E. Lawrence,” needed her reputation rescued from Werner Herzog’s ill-advised effort. In stepped directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl with “Letters From Baghdad,” a carefully researched documentary that uses an extraordinary wealth of appealing archival footage accompanied by Tilda Swinton’s voiceover as Bell. The directors’ backgrounds as editor (Krayenbühl) and photographer (Oelbaum), together with their appreciation for the lands Bell felt most attached to, are clearly on display in the largely sensitive way they handle the material on visual and historical levels.

Getting Swinton on board doing double duty as voiceover actor and executive producer was a wise marketing decision, while the involvement of Thelma Schoonmaker and Kevin Brownlow assured appropriate attention would be given to the artistic and archival sides. The film also features staged talking heads speaking words sourced from letters and journals. Absent however is any hint of Edward Said’s accusation of Orientalism that’s intermittently colored modern assessments of Bell’s crucial role in the foundation of modern Iraq; also missing are any negative assessments by her Arab contemporaries. Viewers attuned to chronology may object to the way footage from different eras is mixed together — the visuals accompanying a 1918 letter are certainly not from 1918 — yet that kind of criticism could be considered pedantic. The bottom line is that Oelbaum and Krayenbühl have fleshed out a complex, fascinating figure, and after a successful festival career, it’s good to see “Letters” getting its due via limited release.

Photographs of Bell reveal a bony, stern-faced woman with a mask-like countenance and a taste for fine clothes. T.E. Lawrence (Eric Loscheider) claimed she was “not very like a woman,” though that merely reflects his own mysogyny and pompousness; far more illuminating is the assessment from Bell’s half-sister Lady Molly Trevelyan (Lucy Robinson): “Hers is not a happy nor a kindly nature.”  Complicating that evaluation are Bell’s letters to her father, warmly voiced by Swinton, which reveal a deeply affectionate attachment to her family — running counter to the emotionally spare woman described in many recollections.

Oelbaum and Krayenbühl cover her whole life, from birth in the privileged though financially insecure world of minor aristocrats to her death at the age of 58 in Cairo from an overdose of sleeping pills. Like most of her class, Bell was reserved among people outside her inner circle, yet she developed a bluestocking’s passion for knowledge and travel. An 1892 visit to her uncle, the British Ambassador in Teheran, kindled a passion for the Near East that she subsequently indulged via courageous treks through Arabia’s deserts and visits to the tribes of Iraq and Syria.

She was a gifted linguist and writer, and her familiarity with the region plus contacts with the British diplomatic corps led to her unusual appointment as assistant political officer during World War I. At the Treaty of Paris, she promoted Arab self-determination and was a key player in drawing up the borders for the newly created state of Iraq. Unfortunately Bell’s idealistic refusal to acknowledge tensions between Sunni, Shia and Kurds, while tirelessly championing the candidacy of Sunni prince Feisal for the Iraqi throne, is one of the many causes of today’s quagmire.

The directors rightly emphasize Bell’s fundamental role in promoting archaeology in the region and creating the Archeological Museum of Iraq, though the film only skirts her disappointment in Feisal’s reign. Also largely passed over is the extent of Britain’s pre-WWI power games in the region and the strategic importance of protecting Indian trade; only later did oil become the determing factor in the Middle East.

“Letters” succeeds best in fleshing out Bell’s emotional depths, balancing charges of arrogance with glimpses into two probably unconsummated passions. The staged talking heads, occasionally over-arch, were shot in 16mm to make them less jarring when contrasted with the real jewels of the film — the scores of archival films showing Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, etc. in the early 1900s through (an educated guess) the 1930s. Digitized specifically for the documentary in most cases, these stunning images, many of which retain their original tinting and stencil colors, offer a window into Bell’s world, revealing the exoticism she identified as a major element of her attraction to the Middle East. Bell’s own highly skilled photographs are peppered throughout the doc and testify to her visual acuity.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Letters From Baghdad'

Reviewed in San Francisco, June 1, 2017. (In London Film Festival, Doc NYC, IDFA.) Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — U.S.-U.K.-France) A Vitagraph Films (in the U.S.), Verve Pictures (in the U.K.) release of a Between the Rivers Prods. production, in association with Missing in Action Films, Zuzu Prods., ARTE France. (International sales: Rise and Shine World Sales, Berlin.) Producer: Zeva Oelbaum. Executive producers: Denise Benmosche, Elizabeth Rodriguez Chandler, Ashley Garrett, Alan Jones, Ruedi Gerber, Thelma Schoonmaker, Tilda Swinton. Co-producer: Mia Bays.

Crew: Directors: Zeva Oelbaum, Sabine Krayenbühl. Camera (B&W, color): Gary Clarke, Petr Hlinomaz.  Editor: Krayenbühl. Music: Paul Cantelon.

With: Michael Higgs, Eric Loscheider, Rachael Stirling, Adam Astill, Helen Ryan, Joanna David, Elizabeth Rider, Jürgen Kalwa, Tom Chadbon, Simon Chandler, Lucy Robinson, Andrew Havill, Antony Edridge, Nicolas Woodeson, Zaydum Khalad, Michelle Eugene, Mark Meadows, Ahmed Hashimi, Ammar Haj Ahmad, Hayat Kamille, Christoper Villiers, Jasper Jacob.   Voices of: Tilda Swinton, Rose Leslie, Izak Atiyas, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens, Nicholas Hunt, Pete R. Day, Mohamad Hodeib, Robert Ian MacKenzie, Richard Poe. (English, Arabic dialogue)

More Film

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content