Despite claims of progressiveness and equality, the fields of twentieth century science, art, and history are bulging with pioneering women who, for one reason or another, have been been shuffled aside in favor of their male colleagues. Rosalind Franklin, Gertrude Stein, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the list goes on and on. And thanks to Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s documentary Letters from Baghdad, we can add Gertrude Bell to this list of twentieth century movers and shakers unfairly overlooked by society. To marvel at her exploits is to sit agape at how she’s escaped public notice for so long. For this physically unassuming woman from the Northeast of England was responsible for nothing less than the formation of modern Iraq. An explorer, archaeologist, and tireless letter writer, Bell was instrumental in quelling the strife among the native Arab peoples in the Middle East following the post-World War One dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. She helped draw modern Iraq’s borders, install Faisal I as their king following a democratic election of questionable legitimacy (only about 20% of the population was literate), and found the Baghdad Archaeological Museum. Yet while her friend and colleague T.E. Lawrence has been lionized in popular culture as a hero, Bell has faded into the background. Not so anymore.
Much like Keith Maitland’s documentary on the University of Texas clock tower shooting Tower (2016), Letters from Baghdad muddies the waters of objectivity by hiring actors to play the featured historical figures. But whereas Tower had its actors recite the survivors’ eyewitness testimony, Letters from Baghdad interviews its performers, asking them what they thought of Bell during such-and-such a time at such-and-such a place. At first this feels like a cheap gimmick more appropriate for grade school documentaries or Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors. But where the film truly shines is in its treatment of Bell herself. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum cast Tilda Swinton as Bell, but we never see her onscreen. All we hear is her voice reading from Bell’s voluminous library of personal letters and correspondences. In essence, through Swinton, the filmmakers are letting Bell speak for herself.
As an examination of Bell’s legacy and impact, Letters from Baghdad is sorely underdeveloped. There’s no discussion of the impact Bell’s geopolitical butchering of Mesopotamia into Western-style nation-states would have on future generations, no condemnation of British imperialism’s role in her work. The film takes Bell entirely on good faith: she fell in love with the Middle East during her travels and worked her whole life to help them gain political independence. The illusion almost shatters during a brief aside where a female missionary recounts a discussion her husband had with Bell while she was drawing up Iraq’s new borders. He’d told her that if she tried to “draw a line” around Iraq and call it a political entity, it’d be going against “4,000 years of history.” To this, the missionary explains, Bell and her husband politely debated for a few hours before quietly dropping the subject.
But despite its shortcomings, Letters from Baghdad is one of the rare documentaries which is in itself an aesthetic achievement. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum’s reliance on nearly 100 year old photos and film reels gives the documentary an eerie, unsettling feeling—even the interviews with the actors are shot in black-and-white. We feel like we’re witnessing the resurrection of some forgotten or lost history book, and every sequence, every scene, every shot brims over the same sense of enchantment and awe-filled wonder Bell so powerfully experienced when she arrived in the Middle East. By the end, we feel like we’ve crawled inside another human being’s mind and seen the world much in the same way they must have.