If there was any justice in the world, T.E. Lawrence — aka Lawrence of Arabia — would be known as “the male Gertrude Bell,” instead of Bell being spoken of, when she is spoken of at all, as “the female Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence, 20 years her junior, was barely out of diapers when Bell first journeyed from England to the Middle East, and by the time he was traipsing around the desert, he was using intelligence on the local landscape — political and well as geographical — that she had gathered by living and working among the Arab tribes and gaining their enormous respect. By the post World War I period that saw the end of Ottoman rule of the Middle East and the beginning of the West deciding how to carve up the region, Bell — traveler, adventurer, diplomat, spy — was the one English person, of any gender, who knew the most about the region and who was best able to advise on how not to make a mess of it.
And yet, a mess it quickly became, and still remains… which Bell foresaw, as we learn in the stunning Letters from Baghdad. One of the most cinematically beautiful documentaries I’ve ever seen, and the directorial debut of documentarians Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, the film combines marvelous archival footage and photos — including many taken by Bell herself — with an in-their-own-words recounting of Bell’s life and work told entirely through firsthand sources: letters, diaries, secret dispatches, and other documents. Actors portray Bell’s friends, family, and colleagues (including Lawrence) speaking to the camera in a gorgeous twist on the usual talking-head documentary trope. Bell’s own words are heard only in narration: Rose Leslie (Morgan, The Last Witch Hunter) voices the young Bell from her pre–Middle Eastern life, with the always remarkable Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange, Hail, Caesar!) providing the voice of the adult Bell.
Bell’s insights, wisdom, intelligence, and humor are so enrapturing that I entirely forgot I was listening to Swinton: Bell’s extraordinary take on the world and her place in it upstages even the actor’s distinctive voice. Letters is a phenomenal portrait of a determined, spirited, independent woman in an era when such qualities were not appreciated in women, and of a moment in political history that continues to reverberate today with catastrophic impact. In some ways, Bell is the architect of the troubles of the modern Middle East — she drew the borders of Iraq, for one thing, and insisted on Kurdistan remaining within those borders — though she also strove to avoid a theocratic state (and succeeded in her own time). What is also clear is that without her deep knowledge of the region and its peoples, and the powerful regard they held her in (which endures to this day), the situation could be very much worse.
If Bell were “merely” a feminist heroine and pioneer for women, that would be more than enough reason to be shouting her story from the metaphorical rooftops. But she helped shape the world today in a way that no one else, male or female, did, and understanding what she did is absolutely essential for understanding the world today. Letters from Baghdad is an essential and hugely engaging step on the path to rectifying her near-erasure from modern history.
Letters from Baghdad is now in limited release in the UK. See the film’s official site for cities and cinemas.