Letters from Baghdad review: an engrossing portrait of an intrepid woman

The publicity for compelling new documentary Letters From Baghdad quotes a description of Gertrude Bell as the “female Lawrence of Arabia”. To be strictly accurate, it was T. E. Lawrence, at 20 years her junior, who followed Bell rather than the other way around – first to Oxford, then to the Middle East and into government service. It hardly needs stating that these routes were rather less well-trodden for Bell than for Lawrence, although there is no need to diminish the achievements of either one. Bell’s story, as told in this engrossing semi-dramatised documentary, is that of a pioneer – a woman whose ambitions exceeded the expectations of her class and gender, who experienced bitter personal disappointment but achieved a notable and important career. Although her story has a sad ending, the work she did had far-reaching consequences, ones that are still felt today.

Bell was born in 1868, in County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. After graduating from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford with a first in history, she began to travel the world. Initially to Persia to visit an uncle who was a diplomat there, and then around the world indulging a passion for mountaineering. She learned several languages, including Arabic and returned to the Middle East in 1899, travelling right across the region and writing an influential book on Syria. She spent some time working as archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire and also in Mesopotamia, where she first met Lawrence.

Gertrude Bell (1921)

It’s during the war that Bell’s story gets especially interesting, as the British intelligence service recognised her expertise and hired her to assist with their operations in the region. After the war she would continue in the Middle East until her death, later as part of the team drawing up borders of modern Iraq, and after that she was given responsibility for the safeguarding the area’s antiquities.

Letters from Baghdad dramatises Bell’s story through her own correspondence, largely her regular, if badly spelled, missives home to her father, stepmother and friends in England. A range of actors play her friends and colleagues, including Lawrence and Vita Sackville-West, in the manner of modern documentary “talking heads”, quoting from their diaries and letters. Bell’s letters are read in voiceover, by the wonderful Tilda Swinton, whose sweet, sonorous delivery animates lines written by an imposingly rational woman, who by all accounts could be rather difficult in person, but passionate on the page. Bell’s concerns for the local heritage, and her fears that the British government has overstepped itself in Iraq, have their grim postscripts in more recent events. It is chilling to hear these doubts expressed privately by one of the architects of the nation, but it is clear that she had the courage to voiced them in person too. Towards the end of her career she expresses concerns that she has been sidelined or discriminated against because of her sex – up to that point, she seems to have been entirely fearless.

The idea of this diffident, fiercely intellectual woman carving out a career as an expert, and a high-level official, in the Middle East at this time … well it’s refreshingly far from The Sheik and its imitators, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you love to know what Bell thought of such nonsense, though? Bell, with her independent streak, adventurous spirit and weakness for a lavish wardrobe, could pass for a Diana Mayo herself, although no doubt she would disapprove of virtually everything else in the story. At one point, in Baghdad I think, Bell recalls arranging an evening’s film screening for the local women. As no men were permitted, she writes, she was forced to act as the film explainer. At this point the documentary shows a lighthearted American romance scene, but I can’t help thinking that Bell would have rather chosen something far more intellectually edifying.

Bell herself was a keen photographer, and many of her striking images are used in the film. That’s a real strength of the film – some of them are stunning, and one is forced to imagine her boldness in taking the more intimate scenes. The documentary’s other trump card is a rich, really rather incredible, selection of archive films. As Bell describes her exotic surroundings, her words are brought to life by moving images – often colour-washed, or hand-tinted. Apparently, some of these clips have never been seen before, which I presume means they have only been available in archives. While the film clips add colour, texture and a little romance to the documentary, I do have a few qualms about their presentation. Hardly a surprise, but all the archive film is cropped top and bottom to fit a widescreen frame, which is mostly harmless but does occasionally result in some mangled compositions. And although the clips are almost entirely silent, they have been “augmented” with sound effects and background dialogue. It’s no doubt considered to be a more natural presentation, but the extra foley clashes with the voiceover sometimes, and for early film aficionados, it is likely to grate from beginning to end. On the rare occasion that a clip is presented silent, and in academy ratio, it is slapped with a (sometimes ersatz) title card and – did you guess? – carpeted over with the sound effect of a flickering projector. One barely has time to get used to the new aspect ratio before the clips are cropped again, anyway. I found all this distracting, and it had the effect of making me doubt the clips, rather than enjoy such exotically distant and historical sights.

Gertrude Bell with Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, Cairo, 1921.

In fact, the ubiquity of these clips throughout the film means they can’t all be quite what they seem, or what they are implied to be. After an image of Bell’s family home in Yorkshire, the voiceover announces her birth, in 1868, while the screen shows a segment of what I am pretty sure is Mitchell and Kenyon’s ‘Panoramic View of Morecambe Sea Front’ (1901) or something like it. It certainly doesn’t date from 1868, and it doesn’t look anything like land-locked Washington, County Durham, where Bell was born. Later timestamps such as “Tehran, 1892” are similarly accompanied by images which may or may not be Tehran, but surely aren’t 1892 anyway. So can we trust “Cairo, 1921” or “Damascus, 1913” or not?

These archival quibbles aside, Letters from Baghdad is an engrossing and sensitive portrait of an intrepid woman who deserves to be celebrated. The film’s two directors, Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum should be applauded for highlighting Bell’s achievements, and illuminating this chapter of history.

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