Thursday, February 27, 2020

Review Letters from Baghdad

Krayenbuhl, Sbine and Oelbaum, Zeva, Directors, Letters from Baghdad, Vitagraph Films, 2016

Letters From Baghdad was a 2016 documentary on Gertrude Bell. She was famous for being an upper class British woman that traveled across the Middle East at the turn of the century, eventually landing a job with the London government, and helped to create and govern the country of Iraq after World War I. This movie was based upon her letters, official documents, and other primary sources. It is a rich portrayal of her life and accomplishments.

The film begins with contemporaries of Bell remembering her. General Sir Gilbert Clayton the Director of Military Intelligence said that T.E. Lawrence got all the fame, but Bell provided the hard data that made the British campaign in the Middle East successful during World War I. T.E. Lawrence himself said that Bell was “really not like a woman,” while Sergeant Frank Safford believed that Bell eventually took her own life. These remarks give a glimpse into the legend that Bell became. She worked in a man’s world during the war with the military, hence Lawrence’s comment. Then there was the enigma of her death in 1926 in Baghdad, Iraq. A woman who had done so much ended up killing herself.

The story begins with Bell’s early life. She was born into a rich English industrialist family. Her mother died when she was young, which made her especially attached to her father. She would eventually become highly educated going to Oxford where she got a degree in History. She then quickly set about travelling through the Middle East starting with Persia and the Ottoman Empire where she found her first love, but it didn’t work out because he was poor and couldn’t support a family. This first trip would shape her entire life. It started a romance with the Middle East that would lead to her future career. She loved the diversity of people she found, along with all of the history which she explored, documented, and wrote about in several books. She would return again and again.

The next major period of Bell’s life was during World War I where she came to work for the British government. This first brought her tragedy as another man she’d fallen for was killed in the conflict. She then went to work for British intelligence in Egypt where her firsthand knowledge of the region was a gold mine. Later she became a political officer in Iraq that was conquered during the war. She advocated for an independent Iraqi nation under an Arab ruler believing that imperialism would only lead to a backlash. Unfortunately, London didn’t listen and created the British Mandate of Iraq. As she predicted there was a revolt by the Iraqis in 1920 that cost thousands of lives. That would change England’s opinion and in 1921 in Cairo Bell attended a conference on the Middle East led by Secretary of the Colonies Winston Churchill. There she successfully advocated for an independent Iraq under Faisal bin Hussein who was to be appointed king. Here she again found a venue to apply her considerable skills. Both the British and the Iraqis were surprised that she knew so much and so many people and immediately made an impression. She was also before her time by pushing for independence rather than colonialism in Iraq. Finally, she proved to be an iconoclast being the only woman working within the power elite of British soldiers and officials, and helped give birth to a nation.

The last section of the film covers her work in independent Iraq. She started off full of vigor becoming the Director of Antiquities and creating the Museum of Iraq. She travelled across the country, going to archeological digs to find displays for the new institution. At the same time, her role in Iraqi politics began to wane and that would lead to at first anger and then despondency. She eventually fell gravely ill. She recovered but her health was not the same, later falling into a bout of depression. Her setbacks would eventually lead her to take her own life. This was a tragic end to a person who had accomplished so much. She went from being on top of the world, shaping a new country, to feeling that she was being forgotten. As T.E. Lawrence remembered, “She was born too gifted.” Her life couldn’t keep up with her tremendous expectations.

Letters From Baghdad is quite an achievement. It provides details of the major events in Gertrude Bell’s life solely through the words and papers of herself and her contemporaries. There are no talking heads of experts making comments about her. Instead the film employed actors to portray people who knew Bell such as T. E. Lawrence and recite what they wrote and said about her. There is also amazing archival footage and photographs of her and Iraq during this period. This is obviously a celebration of Bell’s life so there are no critical comments about her, but it is still overall a very good documentary that should be seen.

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