MPAA Rating: unrated
Runtime: 95 minutes
Directed by: Sabine Krayenbühl, Zeva Oelbaum
Cast: Ammar Haj Ahmad, Adam Astill, Tom Chadbon
Not many women (or men, for that matter) would find slogging across the Mesopotamian desert on camelback exciting, but Gertrude Bell did just that back in the early part of the 20th century.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, born in 1868 in Yorkshire, was one of those extraordinary women too many people have never known about.
But she became the most powerful woman in the British Empire of her day, was an adviser to kings, and eventually became the British “Oriental Secretary,” pushing for Arab self-rule and helping to determine Iraq’s boundaries. Sometimes called the “female T.E. Lawrence,” she knew and worked with him.
Documentarians Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum chronicle her extraordinary life in the fascinating black-and-white documentary Letters From Baghdad
Daughter of a mill owner (a progressive capitalist who made sure his employees were well paid and cared for), she traveled a fair amount with her family and was the type who once corrected a teacher at Oxford (where she got a First in History) about the location of a certain German town because “I’ve been there.”
Never married but adventurous – she enjoyed climbing in the Alps – she was drawn to Mesopotamia (renamed Iraq in 1920) and the Middle East after a visit there. In all, she spent more than 25 years there, learning Arabic and Persian in addition to the French and German she already knew.
A prolific writer, Bell wrote several books, including some 1600 of her letters. She was also a talented photographer. The filmmakers hit on the idea of using her letters as the screenplay and her photos as some of the images.
They hired Tilda Swinton to read the letters, then spent four years tracking down an amazing amount of other archival footage, most of it not digitized. The talking heads are actors playing important people in her life, rather than contemporary “experts.” Most of the letters are to her father, but she also carried on frequent epistolary relationships with several other people.
She may be best remembered for her careful collection of Iraqi antiquities and the establishment of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Unfortunately, the museum was ransacked after the American invasion in 2003.
This film should be shown in women’s studies, Middle East history and perhaps photography classes everywhere.
One friend says, “She was the friend of many Iraqis, but above all she was the friend and champion of Iraq itself.”
But what endears Bell to me more than anything is this comment: “What I really want is a wife to take care of my household and my clothes.”