Letters from Baghdad documentary review: Gertrude Bell, the original Lawrence of Arabia

Letters from Baghdad green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

One of the most cinematically beautiful documentaries ever is a phenomenal portrait of a shamefully forgotten woman who helped shape political history.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

When Lawrence of Arabia hit the desert, he used intelligence about the landscape that Gertrude Bell had gathered.

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,tweet 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.

Gertrude Bell with two other people who helped shaped the modern Middle East.
Gertrude Bell with two other people who helped shape the modern Middle East.tweet

Bell’s insights, wisdom, intelligence, and humor are so enrapturingtweet 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 engagingtweet step on the path to rectifying her near-erasure from modern history.

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