FLIX!

Review: LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD (2017) ' Tilda Swinton narrates the fascinating documentary about trailblazing Gertrude Bell

In FLIX!

Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
July 12, 2017 at 3:12 p.m.



LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD (2017)

Tilda Swinton, Michael Higgs, Eric Loscheider, Rachael Stirling, Adam Astill, Helen Ryan, Joanna David, Elizabeth Rider, Jürgen Kalwa, Tom Chadbon, Simon Chandler, Lucy Robinson

Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl 

At a time when Cinema is focused on the overdue accomplishments of women, behind and in front of the camera, a new documentary emerges about real-life wonder woman Gertrude Bell, a trailblazer who accomplished so many firsts during her lifetime while shaping the future of Iraq after World War I.  Resembling a female Indiana Jones, Bell was an archaeologist, explorer, writer, and unlikely politician who wasn’t as well-known as her colleagues T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia) and Winston Churchill, yet she was regarded as the most powerful woman in the British Empire.  Her story is told by Academy award winner Tilda Swinton using never-seen-before archival footage and photographs that transport the viewer back in time. 

First time directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl met while working on the 2009 documentary “Ahead of Time” about Ruth Gruber, another extraordinary woman who became the world’s youngest PhD at age 20 and a respected photojournalist for the New York Herald Tribune.  There are similarities between Gruber’s life and Gertrude Bell which makes “Letters From Baghdad” a logical transition for Oelbaum and Krayenbühl, a former producer and editor respectively, who do a fascinating job of immersing the audience in Bell’s world.  There are no modern interviews with historians or experts to break the illusion of a world long gone instead we are treated to Swinton’s unmistakable voice as she reads Bell’s personal letters while restored footage from over 25 archives around the world takes us on journey into the past. 

Born Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she became extremely close to her father Sir Hugh Bell after losing her mother at the age of three.  Gertrude attended Oxford, spoke 5 languages, wrote 6 books, and she accomplished many inaugural achievements including the first woman at Oxford to receive first-class honors in Modern History, the first person to climb all the Engelhörner peaks in Switzerland, the first woman to solo journey 1500 miles across the Arabian desert, the first female British militarily intelligence officer, and the only woman to serve as a diplomat at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. 

Apart from all the archival footage, actors are brought in to play the roles of Bell’s associates T.E. Lawrence, Sir Percy Cox, Frank Balfour, and A.T Wilson who are seen on camera conducting interviews that are shot to resemble the black and white archived footage, it’s an effective technique to keep the audience mired in the past. 

Bell was foremost an advocate for the Arab people who nicknamed her “Queen of the Desert.”  She helped to form modern day Iraq by drawing the country’s southern borders in 1922 and she was adamant about preserving the region’s history by collecting artifacts to help launch the Iraq Museum which opened to the public in 1926.  At times, the plethora of information is a bit overwhelming but the documentary which lists Swinton as an executive producer is both fascinating and culturally significant.  

(3 ½ stars) 

Opens Friday July 14 at the Landmark River Oaks in Houston.    

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