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.