An archival photo from Letters From Baghdad (Imperial War Museum)

At a time when many significant historical and scientific contributions made by women over the centuries are finally being brought to light, Letters From Baghdad: The True Story of Gertrude Bell and Iraq will come as yet another revelation. And for those inspired to seek out the historical context not provided by the documentary, this intimate look at an extraordinary woman will be an especially enlightening and informative experience.

Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy English family during the Victorian era. As part of her privileged upbringing, she attended Oxford University, where she was one of the first females to graduate with high honors, earning a degree in history. With her accomplishment came what was considered to be an unacceptable level of independence for a young woman. A relative working as a diplomat in Persia suggested that Bell join his family there in hopes of curbing her “wildness.” In fact, it had the opposite effect, fueling her desire for adventure and exploration.

She fell in love with the Middle East, and after a brief return to her home in England, followed by mountain climbing in the Swiss Alps, Bell headed back to pull together a camel caravan and travel into the uncharted Syrian desert, and she kept extensive photographic and written accounts of her journey. After World War I, her singular knowledge of the area and its people would make her indispensable to the British Empire. She was enlisted by military intelligence to help establish the borders of Iraq, and would aid in the formation of its government. She became the most powerful woman in the British Empire of her time, yet her considerable accomplishments failed to make the history books.

Taken verbatim from letters, diaries, and official documents, Bell’s story is told using only her own words and those of family, friends, and people who worked beside her. Actress Tilda Swinton provides the voice for Bell, who is portrayed visually through the use of original photographs. Comments and criticisms made by family, friends, and acquaintances are presented talking-head style, using actors dressed in period costume. These “reenactments” add life to a story that otherwise relies primarily on historical documents and footage.

Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl make extensive use of original photographs and amazing, never before seen archival footage of the Middle East. The black-and-white format, the musical score that includes original compositions by Paul Cantelon, and the creative editing by Krayenbühl provide an immersive flow to the film. However, some repetitious visuals (the close-up of a woman’s handwriting with a quill pen) and the lack of a cohesive story line don’t go unnoticed. Still, this is an effective and fascinating portrait of Gertrude Bell that gives testament to her significant contributions. The film should serve to correct the historical record and assist in the understanding of present-day unrest plaguing the region.

Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl
Released by Vitagraph
USA/UK/France. 95 min. Not rated

IDFA 2016 | Trailer | Letters from Baghdad from idfa on Vimeo.