Letters From Baghdad (NR)

Documentary 95 min. June 2, 2017
By Daphne Howland
Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl's documentary takes exquisite advantage of a treasure trove of letters, documents and footage of the British Empire in the Middle East around the time of World War I. Its subject, Gertrude Bell, was a wealthy, Oxford-educated woman who began as a tourist and, thanks to her eventual fluency in Arabic and knack for connecting with locals, eventually became a British officer.

She resisted some of that global power's policies and was dedicated to preserving treasured antiquities (eventually establishing the Museum of Iraq, which was looted during and after the 2003 U.S. invasion), but she was, ultimately, a colonial operator.

Tilda Swinton lends heft to the film as the voice of Bell, though the potency of some onscreen acting -- with performers as Bell's contemporaries in scenes shot in black-and-white to complement the archival materials -- is mixed. The film implies that Bell should be exalted even above her compatriot T.E. Lawrence, but that case remains unsubstantiated.

Letters From Baghdad details Bell's private life (including her doomed love affairs), unveils her personality through her lively writing, and shows how her idiosyncrasies (including a penchant for nice clothes) and her sometimes prickly personality affected her personally and professionally. Unfortunately, the doc is devoid of any real context, including how work such as Bell's helped lead to the quagmire that has unsettled the region for decades.
Zeva Oelbaum, Sabine Krayenbühl Tilda Swinton Zeva Oelbaum Vitagraph Films

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