Bell was a woman of extraordinary drive and intelligence who was almost erased from history. Her ghost has more to say.
When writing Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel hunted for every shred of information she could find on Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII and the rest of her historical cast in the letters and records of the time. She was looking for their voices and included their actual words as often as she could in the dialogue of her novel. In effect, she imbued her story with ghosts, allowing them to partner in the telling of their own fictional account.
In Letters from Baghdad, filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum employ a similar device while telling the story of Gertrude Bell, the “most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day.” A contemporary of T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), Bell first travelled to Teheran in 1892 at the age of 24, beginning a personal journey of exploration, discovery and colonial conquest that would span three decades.
The story is told using primary sources including Bell’s extensive correspondences, diaries and secret communiqués. Like Mantel, the filmmakers scoured newspapers and official records to find the voices of Bell’s colleagues, superiors and critics. At no point in the documentary does an expert on the Middle East speak of Bell’s influence on the region or the British occupation of Iraq. As in her life, Bell speaks for herself, here voiced by Tilda Swinton.
In another world, you are not asking yourself who Gertrude Bell is and what her influence on history word. In that world, Tilda Swinton plays her in a lavish epic that would rival David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. A fierce personality who established many firsts for a woman in British society, Bell began her time in the Middle East as a writer, photographer and explorer in the early 20th century. She led a 1500-mile expedition into the desert, mapped the wells and made notes of the tribes she met (information that would later become invaluable to Lawrence). During World War I, she was recruited by British Intelligence to be a spy and became the Honorary Director of Antiquities of Iraq after the war. That she helped draw that country’s borders and was party to the scheme that crowned the first king of Iraq are just a few of her bona fides.
Visually, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum use two strategies for telling Bell’s story. First, they use still photographs of their subjects and the familiar slow pan over the images while Swinton or another actor is speaking. But the real feat is the use of archival footage. Krayenbühl, Oelbaum and their producing partners pored over film archives in the Middle East for film clips of the region shot during Bell’s time. What seemed unlikely to exist did and helps give the documentary a visual texture that seems impossible. We are given glimpses of places like Cairo, Teheran and Baghdad before progress and war ravaged them. In its infancy as a medium, film was able to preserve this world in amber.
While we are given license to marvel at the tour de force that is Gertrude Bell, her own words also serve to indict her. She was a colonialist and a member of the British aristocracy before becoming a civil servant in the employ of her empire. She helped demarcate the borders around the Sunnis, Kurds and Shia. They are the same that exist today and led to the sectarian violence the United States military knows so well. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum do not shy away from Bell’s complicity in the ethnic strife within the Iraq of her time. In fact, they use those moments to illustrate the historical arrogance of all those who took up nation building in the region once known as Mesopotamia.
Ultimately, Letters from Baghdad feels a bit thin, hoping to serve a subject in an hour and a half whose life deserves greater coverage. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum do create a fine primer about a fascinating and complicated historical character: Bell was a woman of extraordinary drive and intelligence who was almost erased from history. Her ghost has more to say.