Viewed in its entirety, perhaps the most striking element of Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad is a mildly galling sense of history repeating itself. Contemporary Western excursions, military offences and ulterior motives in the Middle East are alluded to in a brief prologue that paves the way for this biographical exploration of the life of trailblazing female writer, adventurer and cartographer Gertrude Bell, who was in part responsible for borderlines being drawn around the now perennially conflict-prone nation.
Just as the representation of this failure to learn from the past is not as enraging as one would hope from a documentary film, Letters from Baghdad‘s essential failure comes in lamenting just how its principle subject has been forgotten by the annals of history while at the same time not succeeding in creating a lasting impression of the truly remarkable figure at its centre. For a woman whose life forms unquestionably extraordinary subject matter it’s a real shame that her achievements, divisive personality and character, and epistolary eloquence are tempered to such a dull 90 minutes.
However, Letters from Baghdad must be praised first and foremost for the wealth of early video footage which has been compiled here, bringing the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to life. Over the flickering of jittery black and white images Tilda Swinton narrates the titular correspondence and the primary source material – from Bell, her immediate family and other well known peers, T. E. Lawrence the most recognisable – does intrigue. “Do not ape the habits of Eastern civilisation. There is greater respect in keeping one’s own.” says the Yorkshire girl ploughing a furrow across Syria, Iran and latterly Iraq after graduating from Oxford.
Famed for her independence, Bell’s pig-headed arrogance rubbed many the wrong way but elicited admiration in others who saw past gender and surface appearance. The overall impression we take is of an assured, rough-edged and opinionated humanist whose unparallelled knowledge of the region and quest for sincere understanding made her an unusually philanthropic, forward-thinking foreigner; unlike so many of her countrymen. What were British intentions in invading and dissecting this far away foreign land? The procurement and safeguarding of oil supplies. Plus ça change.
With gender equality, remarkably, still an issue in Western workplaces and society, the sexual politics at play here, split between the blatant sexism of some and acceptance of others, could have been ploughed more deeply as another counterpoint and though the reconstructed talking head interviews provide further points of view on Bell’s person and exploits they play out much like a history lesson video or made-for-TV doc. We become all too aware that we are being informed and a procession of facts and dates become as wearying as trudging through thick sand.