Letters from Baghdad (PG)
USA/UK 2016 93 mins Dir: Zeva Oelbaum, Sabine Krayenbüehl
“The real difficulty under which we labour here is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do in this country. We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs?” These words could be used today about any number of ill-fated interventions in the Middle East. In fact, they were written about Iraq circa 1917 by one Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell. Who she? Well, Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbüehl’s intriguing documentary makes the case that this feisty Empire-era adventurer was one of the key figures in the foundation of Iraq, but has been unfairly written out of history – quite possibly because she was a woman. One archive snap included here depicts her sandwiched between T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. Even in the social media era, one hopes most schoolkids could put a name to at least one of them.
Oelbaum and Krayenbüehl’s Kickstarter-funded film deploys the full toolbox of the modern documentarian’s craft, from scratchy archive newsreel footage to those modish part-animated still photographs and actors speaking the words of historical figures (Vita Sackville-West, T.E. Lawrence, etc) in mock talking head interviews. But their trump card is a collection of 1,600 of Bell’s letters, excerpts from which are read by Tilda Swinton, giving the film both an immediacy and a genuine, unfiltered insight into her thoughts.
Sticking firmly to contemporary written accounts also avoids the danger of imposing a smug modern PC perspective. That said, there’s much fun to be had at the expense of period sexism expressed by condescending whiskery gents. And it’s Lawrence himself who comes off worst in this regard, ungallantly remarking that Bell is “pleasant … not beautiful – except with a veil on, perhaps”. Even when he concedes that she’s “a wonderful person”, he cannot help adding: “Not very like a woman”.
But Bell herself makes a rather unlikely feminist heroine. Despite the suggestion that her father was short of a few bob, she was a posh gel raised in a large house who enjoyed the support of her family when she went on to read History at Oxford, where she took a first. To their great credit, Oelbaum and Krayenbüehl resist the hagiographic urge. Dissenting voices point to Bell’s general unpopularity on account of being abrupt, arrogant, intolerant and snooty – “especially with other women”. She also had a penchant for fashionable clothes and expensive shoes, which were shipped out to Mesopotamia seemingly by the crateload.
Nonetheless, her achievements should not be under-estimated. That determination to succeed in a male-dominated world after engaging in an early “orgy of independence” in London (taking the underground alone – imagine!) is a given. More impressive is her unflinching, non-judgemental embrace of “the Orient” and its inhabitants’ right to self-determination at a time when such views were decidedly unfashionable. A clue to its origins can perhaps be found in a letter in which she praises “a wider tolerance born of greater diversity in the East”.
Bell’s personal life takes a bit of a backseat, though we do learn that an early suitor had to be discarded because he didn’t have a pot to piss in and a later dalliance with a married man (we never learn whether this went beyond the epistolary) ended when he perished at Gallipoli. Little wonder she threw herself into her work, her unrivalled knowledge of inter-tribal relationships earning her a place at the table when it came to the tricky business of drawing up the boundaries of Iraq during the British occupation after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
Modern resonance is never far away. Bell’s despair at the rise of extremist factions after the Brits renege on their promise of true independence seems all too familiar, as does her disdain for the greedy Yanks being driven solely by a lust for oil (“detestable stuff,” she sniffs). When she visits the ancient ruins of Palmyra, we’re reminded that many of these were destroyed by Isis. And her own great legacy, The National Museum of Iraq, was ransacked after the US invasion of 2003.
Incidentally, if Bell’s fascinating story seems like a great subject for an all-star biopic, you may be surprised to learn that one already exists but has never been released in the UK, probably because reviews were not kind. Directed by Werner Herzog and unveiled at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, Queen of the Desert stars none other than Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell.