Watching this documentary might potentially ruin the idolised icon of T. E. Lawrence, depicted as a spy who single-handedly played with the fate of whole countries in the Hollywood blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia. Gertrude Bell is referred to as his female counterpart in the British imperial advancements of the 20th century. Although, she has had greater impact on this than Lawrence, she never truly left the shadow he cast. This masculine alteration of history is challenged in Letters from Baghdad, as Bell’s narrative is recovered.
From the very beginning this documentary presents a patriarchy-defying and fearless heroine. Whether it is challenging her revered teachers or climbing the peaks of untouched Swiss mountain ranges, Bell is portrayed as the archetype of unconventional womanhood. Utilising letters from Gertrude Bell herself, as well as from her family, friends, and associated politicians the viewer is offered a rivetingly personal insight to her life. Performing the letters in a talking-head style the various performers allow for a visualisation of the written. Initially these acts appear tiresome and uncouth. However, their subtle characterisation of historical personas inevitably becomes the documentary’s cornerstone, as it enables the intimacy needed in such a personal story.
Orchestrated to give an honest illustration of Bell, these letters guide the storyline from her childhood to her first visits to the Middle East. Her travel-writings are supplemented, like the rest of the film, with restored stock material from the time. Film and photography blend together to successfully project Bell’s infatuation with the Middle East onto the audience. Soon Bell gains knowledge of the tribes travelling through the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire, which quickly becomes the interest of British intelligence.
Reluctantly, the British Empire entrusts Bell, a woman, with the duties of a spy and diplomat. Imprisonment in foreign territory, political espionage ala House of Cards, and the creation of the nation of Iraq become Bell’s every-day life. Although, her vivid life and mysterious death seem written for a tacky thriller, Letters from Baghdad never seizes to lay bare the person behind this strong female icon. Bell’s emotional entanglements as well as the key relationship to her father, are wonderfully interwoven with her feminist and political endeavours.
Yet, it is a shame that the positively intended feminist agenda overrides the devastating political impact Bell’s involvement had in the British Colonial scheme. Trying to paint a lasting counter-narrative to the male driven political landscape of the 19th and 20th century, this documentary neglects the disastrous effects of imperialism. Noting the British failure in creating a “sovereign” Iraq, the film only momentarily lingers on the true victims of this time. The colonial atrocities caused by dividing a people’s land through pencil and ruler on a map, become belittled in Bell’s simplification: “we promised an Arab government with British advisors, but had set up a British government with Arab advisors”. Current issues in Iraq can be traced back to this interventionism, but is buried within one person’s disillusionment.
The Cairo Conference. Gertrude Bell can be seen on the far left
Bell was undeniably an extraordinary woman and Letters From Baghdad's amplication of female voices in history is admirable, and whilst their focus on reverting the oppression of the female history perhaps undermines the full story of the political effects of British Colonial rule, it is an effectively personal and intimate portrayal of an alternative side of history.
Letters From Baghdad's general release is 21 April at cinemas nationwide.