Letters from Baghdad

 

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A film of spell-binding words and images linked to the life of Gertrude Bell.

 
Letters from Baghdad

  

This is a film made with great intelligence and that is both admirable and all too rare these days. The filmmakers, unknown to me, are Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl but the name that stands out in the credits is that of Tilda Swinton. The aim of this work is to put the spotlight on an extraordinary woman famous in her day but no longer such a familiar name: Gertrude Bell. She lived from 1868 to 1926 and, despite living in an era when women's aspirations were curtailed, she had the intelligence and determination to become an expert on the Middle East, travelling abroad and writing a travel book about Syria as well as charting relatively unknown regions out there at the behest of the Royal Geographic Society. During the First World War and afterwards she played an important role in discussions over Britain's role in Baghdad and in due course supported Arab independence although eventually she would become disillusioned by Feisal, the man she had supported for the kingship of Iraq.

 

Just as her personal life had its tragic side - a potential fiancé treated as unsuitable and the death early in the war of the married man she subsequently came to love - later events led to a sad end (death, probably suicide, came from an overdose of pills). Yet even late in her life she would create a museum of history in Baghdad, another achievement in a remarkable life.  Her devotion to the Middle East limited her time with her family despite her having a loving bond with her father in particular and the film does not hide the fact that some people found her extremely arrogant. Yet she undoubtedly deserves to be remembered - not just because the early 20th century history of the Middle East is so relevant to its 21st century turmoil but in her own right as somebody whose endeavours ought to be no less known than those of her compatriot T.E. Lawrence.

 

I call the film intelligent because, notwithstanding the use of actors to address the camera in character (this aspect admirably controlled and unforced), the filmmakers avoid arty trendiness and assume that those interested in Gertrude Bell will respect this approach.  It involves using only actual words written or spoken by those involved and this allows us to admire another quality in Gertrude Bell - her gift for words which we hear spoken when Tilda Swinton - a perfect  choice for this and also an executive producer here - reads from her letters. Meanwhile, literary authenticity and a lack of technical flourishes still leave room for the directors to assemble a remarkable array of visuals, images taken in the period and mostly in black and white. Informative, balanced, Letters from Baghdad is directed at an audience that will appreciate the qualities that have moulded this film into what it is.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Voices of  Tilda Swinton, Rose Leslie, Izak Atiyas, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens, Nicholas Hunt, Peter Day, Mohamed Hodeib, Robert Ian Mackenzie, Richard Poe.

 

Dir Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, Pro Zeva Oelbaum, Ph Gary Clarke and Petr Hinomaz, Pro Des Erik Rehl, Ed Sabine Krayenbühl, Music Paul Cantelon, Costumes Allison Wyldeck.

 

Between the Rivers Productions/Letters From Baghdad/Missing In Action Films-Verve Pictures.
95 mins. UK/USA/France. 2016. Rel: 21 April 2017. Cert. PG.