Whenever I read a book or watch a film, my ideal reaction is to be left speechless but also so full of profound afterthoughts that I struggle to then coherently explain myself. It doesn’t happen often, but I absolutely adore it when it does. There are many reasons why I want to recommend this documentary, not least because I got the rare joy of reacting to the film in this way, but for the sake of being concise I stick to just three.
‘Letters from Baghdad’ is a documentary by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl about the true story of Gertrude Bell. The film is made up visually of about 75% contemporary and previously unseen archive footage depicting mostly the Middle East where Gertrude Bell worked and lived in the early 20th Century. It is shown alongside stills of her own photographs from the archive at Newcastle University. The rest of the footage was created for the film, and mostly consists of interviews representing her friends, family and colleagues. The audio overlaying this stunning visual encapsulation of history is Tilda Swinton reading the letters written by Gertrude Bell to her friends and family in England.
The documentary is utterly stunning to watch and listen to, and my congratulations to both Oelbaum and Krayenbühl for their masterful creation. The first reason I have to recommend this film to people is because it has been so carefully researched and skilfully created. I had the good fortune of being able to be part of the question and answer session with the filmmakers, held after a viewing at the Tyneside Cinema here in Newcastle. The passion, hard work and dedication that these two filmmakers and their team put into the making of this film is to be commended. This is not just because of how wonderful the film about Gertrude Bell turned out, but also because her story is incredibly important to tell.
Being from the North East where Gertrude Bell came from, and a former history student at Newcastle University where the archive of her photographs and letters is held, I’ve been fortunate enough to gain awareness of her via public lectures and exhibitions. While I have never studied her in depth because I ended up specialising in earlier historical periods, it has never been lost on me that Gertrude Bell should be a great deal better known. She has seemingly been forgotten by history in the West, though as the filmmakers did point out, she very fondly remembered in places such as Iraq, where she is known as ‘Miss Bell’.
The documentary charts her life, highlighting at first her travels in the Middle East, in what was then the Ottoman Empire, before moving on to her being recruited by the British Government as a consultant in the establishment of the modern State of Iraq in the aftermath of the First World War. For a woman who achieved so much, at a time when it wasn’t something a lady would do, for her to have been seemingly forgotten by history is something I still struggle to understand.
I’m not an expert either historically or politically in commenting on her legacy or on the events that have happened in the Middle East since she carried out her work. However, her relevancy given the turmoil in current times is something that needs to be highlighted, and is the second reason I recommend this film. The events that she witnessed have remarkable parallels to the modern day, especially the importance placed by Western Governments of establishing ‘their’ control over oil over keeping their promises to help build administrations for the peoples of the Middle East to govern themselves. If anyone wants to understand better the historical reasons behind why this region is so troubled now, this documentary about a time when these troubles mirror the present day is very good place to start.
However, this film is not just a starting point for anyone wanting to understand the history of the region better. As wonderful as the archive footage used throughout the documentary is, this is a film about a remarkably complex woman. That is something that cannot be buried under other reasons to see the film. For me the most important reason why anyone should see this film is because of Gertrude Bell herself.
Women do tend to be forgotten by history, and this documentary is a vital demonstration that women of the past can be just as interesting, talented, important and as complex as their male counterparts. It was even suggested in the question and answer session that it is because she is a woman that this story of her life is all the more remarkable because of what she managed to achieve in a male dominated world. The interpretation of her life that I found most intriguing about this film was the idea of what defined her as a person.
She came across as a very intelligent and adventurous woman, who found travelling and exploring the world one of the only ways in which she felt like a ‘person’, by which I took that to mean, she felt valued in the same way a man would be simply by fact of his gender rather than through his accomplishments. Hearing her words and her viewpoint of the events of the world, via Tilda Swinton’s masterful readings of her letters, not only proves her historical importance as a first-hand witness to events, but is also a remarkable testimony to how complex a person is capable of being.
From the interviews scattered throughout the documentary, which were based on accounts from her contemporaries, her complexity becomes apparent. She was viewed as an arrogant woman, who was disinterested in the ‘normal’ activities of women, but nevertheless was also seen as incredibly capable, even if at times her place was questioned simply because of her sex. Even within her own correspondence, she had become to believe herself to be a sexless entity, and in that way had become acceptable. However, later in her life she acknowledged, with a heavy heart I felt, that the matter of her gender became unacceptable when the likes of Sir Percy Cox who valued her work, were replaced by men that did not view her as important.
The greatest insight into the woman that I got from the documentary was a remark she made about why she worked as hard as she did. Naturally of course her romantic relationships were discussed, and from her correspondence I was very much left with the impression that while all of her inner feelings weren’t necessarily seen by her contemporaries, based on what she wrote I would suspect that she felt very deeply indeed.
She was a romantic, struck by tragedy. Her work was to her a narcotic, because she wanted a distraction from other thoughts that she did not wish to dwell on. Because of those words alone I struggle to see the arrogant woman her colleagues saw. I don’t doubt she probably was arrogant, but she was also deeply fraught; a woman conflicted by the events she saw around her and by the events of her own life. This is why for me, Gertrude Bell is the most important reason to see this documentary, because she is portrayed as complex.
In a world where women are still fighting to be fully represented by the media, whether in fact or fiction, this documentary demonstrates that it is possible show to show the depth and complications of a woman’s life. More than that it can be done using our own words, our accomplishments and with an intricacy that cannot simply be summarised by whether we are wholly good or bad; feminine or not; or seen as successful or arrogant in our pursuits. We can be all of these, all at once, just like Gertrude Bell.
Also if we don’t fight for women like her was to be remembered, who’s to say that in a hundred years’ time, the women of our time will be remembered for their achievements?