Letters from Baghdad is a remarkable ‘biodoc’ – enjoyable and informative to watch and important for three reasons. First, it presents the story of Gertrude Lowthian Bell, a British woman born in 1868 who would become a prominent figure in the history of British imperial policy in the Levant, Palestine and Mesopotamia during the final days of the Ottoman Empire and the British mandate in the 1920s. Second, that history reveals several issues that have recurred and remain relevant to the contemporary politics of the region. Third, the formal features of the film are distinctive and make imaginative use of photographs taken by Bell herself, her extensive writings, and hundreds of contemporary film clips sourced from a variety of archives. An extraordinary amount of detail is packed into 95 minutes.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in the North East of England. Her grandfather was an ironmaster and Liberal MP and her family home eventually became the manor house of the model village he built in Rounton in the North Riding of Yorkshire. One of the few women studying at Oxford in the late 1880s, she gained a first in history and over the next few years she travelled widely making use of her family’s diplomatic contacts. Her first passion for ‘the Orient’ was kindled in Tehran and soon she could speak Persian as well as French and German. Later she would add Arabic and begin extensive journeys across the wilds of ‘Arabia’, most of which was still under the nominal control of the Ottoman Empire. Her travels were accompanied by archaeology and a serious interest in antiquities. She quickly became a confirmed ‘Arabist’ and an authority on the leading families in the Arab world. Her knowledge and understanding of the region equalled and arguably out distanced that of T.E. Lawrence. She was only marginally held back by her gender. Her eventual importance to the imperial ‘project’, however, did depend to a certain extent on which of men were selected for which posts. She got on very well with some but others detested her. Her major influence came in the second half of the Great War and during the aftermath when the British and French carved up the old Ottoman Empire. She had a role in the creation of Iraq as an identity carved out of the three Turkish provinces of Mesopotamia and also became the founder of the Museum of Iraq. Her most high-profile role was in helping to place the Hashemite King Faisal on the throne of Iraq. Her knowledge of the leading Arab families was crucial.
The complicated story of Gertrude Bell’s work, initially off her own bat and later as a British appointee is told in the film alongside the personal life of a woman who significant relationships with a select group of men, but who never married. The film’s creators led by the two producer-directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum developed an interesting strategy for a biodoc which certainly works in maintaining a narrative flow. They collected some 1,200 archive film clips and several thosand still photographs, many taken by Bell herself. Much of the material came from the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University. They collected together Bell’s letters and diary entries and also the statements made by many of the distinguished figures who knew her. In an interview with Anne-Katrin Titze, Sabine Krayenbühl says that the aim was to imagine that these statements were made for a documentary just two or three years after Bell’s death in 1926. The ‘witnesses’ are played by actors in appropriate period costumes who read out the statements as if they were appearing in a modern-style documentary. This is a technique which is similar to that used by Peter Watkins in a film like Culloden (1964), although in this case the actors appear against a plain studio backdrop instead of on the battlefield. The film material is quite varied with some colour footage as well as what seems to be hand-tinted footage. They also seem to have added sound effects to the footage – and sometimes what seem to be lines of dialogue. The diaries and letters of the adult Gertrude are read (off screen) by Tilda Swinton, who is also an executive producer. The editing by Sabine Krayenbühl is very good and the production’s profile is boosted by an executive producer role for Thelma Schoonmaker. (The film also has a UK co-producer and associate producers in France.) All of this worked for me and they were fortunate that Gertrude Bell had access to good quality photographic equipment and was skilled in using it. It’s also worth pointing out that the nineteenth century had been an important period for both French and British ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Arabism’ and there was a wide interest in filming in Mesopotamia.
What emerges from the film is a woman with considerable achievements who certainly deserves to be more widely known by contemporary audiences. There has also recently been a feature film based on her exploits in Mesopotamia directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude. The Queen of the Desert was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015 but as far as I can see never released in the UK. It opened online in the US in April but seems to have been received very poorly by critics. It’s troubling to think what a mainstream international film might have done with Gertrude Bell’s life. But focusing on her two affairs is understandable and some of the ‘user views’ on the Herzog film inadvertently comment on aspects of this biodoc. Gertrude Bell was not an easy person to get on with and Letters from Baghdad doesn’t avoid this issue. There are revealing comments by the wife of an American missionary(?) who notes that she found favour with Gertrude Bell because she was a middle-class woman with a degree. At other points we learn about Bell’s extravagance in buying the best clothes and shoes available. These aren’t major crimes but the film might have been a little bit more aware of the issues about social class and imperial privilege. Bell was undoubtedly a pioneer for women in terms of her academic success, her archaeology and travel writing and her intelligence reports in wartime. She was also a very privileged member of the British upper class with an imperial arrogance. Gertrude Bell probably thought she was doing the best she could for the people of Iraq but she did draw boundaries which made the artificial state of Iraq more difficult to govern and she did acquiesce in the imperial policies of the Mandate which laid the seeds for the problems of Iraq today.
One of the most surprising facts that comes out of the film is that Bell claimed that the Jewish population of Baghdad was as much as 80,000 in 1920 – a very large proportion of the city’s population. Certainly there were 150,000 in Iraq as a whole. These Arab Jews were not necessarily interested in the Zionism, then becoming active in Mandate Palestine, and Bell herself seems to have been anti-Zionist. I hope I’ve got this right – there were so many statements in the film. I hope I’ve demonstrated that there is much to learn from the film. There are many ironies. The British treated the Iraqis very badly in the 1920s (when the country became a de facto military state run by the RAF with its bombers). The British and the Americans fought over the oil rights which Britain managed to retain by maintaining rights over Mosul. Gertrude Bell fought to build up the collection of antiquities in the Museum of Iraq – some of these were lost when the American invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 led to looting.
Letters from Baghdad is well worth seeing. I watched it in an almost full Cinema 3 at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on a Friday afternoon. It has a limited release in a handful of US cinemas this week (see this website for listings) and is online in the UK with a DVD release soon. I’d happily watch the film again to check my understanding of this woman’s extraordinary adventures.