Many Western names are associated with the history of the Middle East but few will have heard of the British explorer, diplomat and spy Gertrude Bell. Thankfully filmmakers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl have chosen to bring her story to light using the letters she wrote throughout her life, narrated by Tilda Swindon, and previously unseen film footage salvaged from the Iraqi Museum.
The documentary does justice to a woman who defiantly disagreed with the British government in relation to their treatment of Iraqis under colonial rule. It is hard to be brief when listing her achievements but ultimately Bell played an important hand in history when she was given the incendiary task of creating Iraq from the area formerly known as Mesopotamia. The film is startlingly pertinent considering the current state of Iraq and Syria today as there has been speculation that the borders of these countries may need to be redrawn.
Letters From Baghdad gives an honest, intimate insight into her character and to its credit is unafraid to explore different aspects of her personality. For instance, one female friend remarks that she was friendly towards her but probably only because she had a university degree and was highly educated. Her contemporaries paint a picture of a woman who was highly intelligent but after the loss of a loved one became hardened and busied herself with her work to cope.
However Bell’s aloof sentiments towards people in personal relationships did not carry over into her strong feelings of fairness towards the Arabs under British rule. She wanted their voices heard and passionately defended their wishes. Bell insisted that the British should honour their promise to let King Faisal rule in return for their help in bringing down the Ottoman Empire and advocated self-determination, believing that the British were ‘being too hard’ on the people of Baghdad. Eventually this was agreed to and she helped advise King Faisal until her death remarking, ‘I’ll never engage in creating Kings again; it’s too great a strain.’
Despite being the female equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia, her story was at risk of being forgotten, even part of the museum dedicated to her was severely damaged from the American invasion in 2003. The fascinating archival footage shown throughout the film which was obtained from the Iraqi Library was also damaged. In light of the current conflict there, it is staggering watching people from different communities and religions walking alongside each other peacefully one hundred years ago.
The filmmakers have spoken of how she was written out of history due to her gender and how they wanted to bring to light how incredibly open-minded she was. Letters From Baghdad provides provocative footage such as the mists on the River Tigris alongside Bell’s account of how she felt when looking at the river, and pays an honest, thoughtful tribute to the woman who not only carved new boundaries on the map but also redrew the boundaries of what women were considered to be capable of.
Letters from Baghdad is out in UK cinemas now.