A century ago, the shape of the modern Middle East was formed out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The behind-the-scenes power play by Britain and France that resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the boundaries of their respective zones of influence. But also significant was the work done by the British explorer, archaeologist and spy, Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, with whom she had a friendship spiced by intense personal rivalry, Bell left her mark in more ways than one, including founding the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and chivying, not always successfully, the British government to, run its Middle Eastern League of Nations mandates according to her priorities. There have been several books about Gertrude Bell, but none gives such a vivid picture of her as the new documentary film by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters from Baghdad. Their approach is quite daring, reflecting its subject’s forthright personality, as it largely comprises archive footage that the film-makers found in 25 separate locations, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Bell herself. The streets of Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and other places 100 years ago are so successfully brought alive that one is transported back in time, as well as place.
The commentary is drawn from the subject’s letters and diaries, supplemented by those of some of the people who encountered her. The actor Tilda Swinton provides Bell’s voice, while other actors impersonate key characters, filmed as if giving live interviews. This is truly history reincarnated before our eyes. The film does not hide the complexities, even difficulties, in Gertrude Bell’s character. She was driven by what she believed to be right, and she could be both churlish and offensive towards those who disagreed with her, or struck her as superficial. She was as brave as any man, and the Arabs treated her respectfully as if she were one, yet she also had a colossal wardrobe of clothes, one reason for T. E. Lawrence’s sneering disapproval. She would not have been an easy woman to have as a friend, but one would have had to admire her energy, even if she herself became increasingly disillusioned with life by the end, dying from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of sleeping pills. This film does her an immense service, as well as underlining Britain’s role in shaping, for better or for worse, the modern, conflict-riven Middle East. It’s a “must see” for anyone with even the slightest interest in the region, but it should appeal also to anyone who relishes accounts of extraordinary individuals.