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Cinematic Archeology and the Portrayal of a “Wonder Woman”: Letters from Baghdad

Letters 01

By Martin Kudláč.

In the 1996 film The English Patient directed by Anthony Minghella is a scene with British soldiers examining a map. “But can we get through those mountains?” to which another replies “The Bell maps show a way” followed by “Let´s hope he was right.” This reference has been the cinematic testament to a lifetime of Bell´s achievements. More precisely Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell boasting a cavalcade of monikers such as “the uncrowned queen of Iraq”, “Khatun” [woman of the court], “shaper of nations” and queen of the desert that eventually became the title of Werner Herzog´s 2015 biographical drama revolving mainly around Bell´s (with Nicole Kidman in the leading role) two failed romances. The film thus did a disservice to her remarkable legacy that lingered in the shadow of Thomas Edward Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, and was by some accounts, too long.

Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, film editor and producer/still photographer, respectively, decided to build a new and more proper monument to the woman that vanished out of history for no apparent reason in the documentary Letters from Baghdad. The documentary opens with photography recounting Bell´s deeds and a lifestyle defying conventions of Victorian ladies, with images taken in front of Sphinx in March 1921 immortalizing Gertrude Bell among a troop of camel-striding men, including Winston Churchill and the abovementioned T.E. Lawrence on the last day of the Cairo conference on the Middle East, presenting the labor pains of a new country, Iraq.

Anybody attempting to distill somebody else´s life story into 512 prose pages (Georgina Howell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations), 128 of script (Werner Herzog: Queen of the Desert) or 95 (Letters from Baghdad) faces an a chain of choices and dilemmas. Attempts result in a project that can easily backfire, as with Herzog, who molded Bell´s story with a romantic narrative that was doomed from the beginning to become a gross and jaded stereotype. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum followed the adventurous life of Major Miss Bell (as she became known) while honoring the genre of biography with essential snippets from her private life to frame the portrait.

The filmmakers do not omit what they consider to be important or crucial events, starting out with her birth into British aristocratic background (hence the financial safe net), Bell becoming motherless at the age of three, her studies at Oxford, her travels to Persia visiting the uncle Sir Frank Lascalles, the British Ambassador to Tehran, journey to Syrian dessert, first archeological expedition, and events before, during, and after World War I. Bell also became the first female British Military Intelligence officer and worked as Oriental Secretary in the colonial office in Baghdad, among other achievements up to her unfortunate demise purported by overdose from sleeping pills at the age of 57. The circumstance of her death remains a riddle; it is unclear whether the act was deliberate or accidental though her friends said she suffered from depression. She was buried at the British cemetery in Baghdad´s Bab al-Sharji district.

Krayenbühl and Oelbaum chose a deserving form to grasp the life of a trailblazer. Letters from Baghdad is a meticulously researched biography toggling between first person and third person narrative. Bell left behind a rich private correspondence amounting to 1,600 letters to be combed through and yielding a more intimate portrayal immersively served by Tilda Swinton in the voice-over (and as an executive producer of the documentary) as the protagonist. Complementing the first-person perspective are different voices from Bell´s inner and wider circle of acquaintances and contemporaries depicted by actors in period costumes, talking head-style, and shot in 16 mm to not disrupt the aesthetic homogeneity of the film and preserve the visual periodic patina throughout the whole running time.

Letters from Baghdad is not only a sprawling portrait of Gertrude Bell but one of a certain time and place, an audiovisual time-capsule. The filmmakers’ decision to banish any current historians or any modern elements in general from the film was undertaken to make that kind of documentary that could be produced during Bell´s lifetime or shortly after her burial. Letters from Baghdad is a product of punctilious probing regarding the central protagonist but also an example of rigorous film archeology. The filmmakers confessed to discovering 1,000 film clips in around 25 archives in the world, some hand-tinted; it’s a wealth of archival footage from the period of the dawn of cinema that was scanned and digitalized to be preserved as a historic heritage and featured in a tapestry of a lost world and the medley of Arab, Persian, and British culture. A boon to Middle East cinema.

While the footage is not related to the central figure, the filmmakers substitute the lack with photographs by Bell since she was also an avid photographer. 7,000 of her photographs are the testament to her proceedings, the 1921 Cairo photography not being the sole example of Bell´s embalming in the stream of history. She stood out not only by being frequently the single representative of the “gentle sex” but also by wearing distinctive luxury clothes while sporting stern face (hints of her androgynousness can be occasionally encountered during the film; Lawrence comments about her with a pinch of envy: “A wonderful person, not very much like a woman, you know. … She was born too gifted perhaps”). The tapestry of clips from Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, or Tehran documents varied period and local culture and conjures up the world, the exotic space, the Arabist, wanderluster, archeologist, translator, feminist, first woman to joint Secret Intelligence Service,  and the influential political officer Gertrude Bell was on a daily basis.

Under the depiction of Bell and picaresque Middle East of 1920s runs a strong political thread so defining that it is hard to call it a subtext. “We don’t know exactly what we intend to be in this country. We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive politics scheme,” says the protagonist of the British occupation of Iraq at one point while reiterating more bluntly and somewhat disillusioned, “We’d promised an Arab government with British advisors and had set up a British government with Arab advisors,” before being relieved of political duties and transferred to catalogue Iraq´s antiquities. In the light of recent shattering events in the United Kingdom, Letters from Baghdad reveals actualizing moments illuminating the painful historic context of the Empire alluding to also the Sykes-Picot agreement and in wide perspective, the constant interference of West in the (geo)political affairs of East. Allegedly, Bell´s letters migrate to the Pentagon because the military found them useful and thoughtful.

Bell lived an illustrious and adventurous life, became the most powerful woman of her time, and defied the sexist prejudices and social conventions and mores of her time. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum do not omit either. Letters from Baghdad is a well-earned celebration of one unconventional woman´s life and her pioneering achievements, thus rectifying credits of which she has been unjustly robbed. As an imaginary Wonder Woman barges into theaters, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum introduce an actual one while rescuing her from the oblivion of suppressing patriarchal consciousness.

Letters from Baghdad is now in US theaters from Vitagraph Films.

Martin Kudláč is a PhD candidate in Aesthetics and a freelance film journalist based in Slovakia.

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