Review: the documentary ‘Letters from Baghdad’

by Andrew Parker

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was a cultural trailblazer whose historical, cultural, artistic, and archaeological research changed perceptions of the Middle East. But like many intelligent women, Bell – who was once quietly regarded as the most powerful female in the British Empire – saw many of her contributions ignored, suppressed, or erased from public and private record. That’s staggering when one considers that she was hugely instrumental in the fight for Iraqi independence from British rule and basically redefined the borders in the region that are more or less still in use today. Filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum aren’t content to merely look back on Bell’s legacy, but let their subject speak for herself in the well researched and assembled documentary Letters from Baghdad.

Krayenbühl and Oelbaum look at Bell’s life entirely through primary sources devoid of any modern context in an effort to provide a more immediate look back on history. Bell is given voice by actress Tilda Swinton (who serves as a producer here alongside renowned editor Thelma Schoonmaker), and her own letters, papers, correspondences and recollections are taken word for word from the page. Instead of modern day historians brought in as talking heads, actors are hired to play famous players and historical figures (including T.E. Lawrence, who was often compared to Bell) reading similar primary documents aloud. Letters from Baghdad is an oral history stitched together entirely from subjects no longer able to physically talk about what they witnessed or how Bell contributed to the history of Mesopotamia.

The concept of Letters from Baghdad is solid, even if the execution is a bit rudimentary. The recreations of talking head interviews with former political luminaries and historians carry with them a made-for-television feel, and the use of some exceptional archival footage captured in the Middle East post-World War I is great, but undercut by the addition of sound effects and enhancements designed to appeal to modern audiences. The material provided by Bell is already fairly dry stuff to get through, so these decisions are understandable, yet still curiously distracting.

Oelbaum and Krayenbühl’s subject shines at every turn, and an unbiased history of Bell has been a long time coming. While not as critical of Bell’s work as some would like to be (considering that her research did help British intelligence immensely and unconsciously), Letters from Baghdad serves as a functional and impassioned look back on the staggering list of accomplishments made by Bell. Starting from her childhood and being born into a financially unstable family, to becoming one of the first women to attend Oxford, to being the first woman ever to cross the Arabian Desert, and being the only woman present for nearly every talk at the landmark 1921 Cairo Conference, Letters from Baghdad has plenty of material to work from and a lot of ground to cover.

Bell remained a fascinating, complex figurehead until her (possibly accidental) death by sleeping pill overdose in 1926, and with the exception of Werner Herzog’s dreadful 2015 drama Queen of the Desert, not much has been made of her life on screen prior to this. Her contributions to world history were groundbreaking, voluminous, and indispensable, and stylistic quibbles aside, so too is Letters from Baghdad, an accomplished single volume of primary sources that should tell viewers all they need to know and more about this great woman.

Letters from Baghdad opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, August 25, 2017.

Check out the trailer for Letters from Baghdad:

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