Slough Cooperative Film Society Slough Cooperative Film Society

The Society has been showing the best of world and independent cinema in Slough for 70 years

7th November 2017 DATCHET VILLAGE HALL

LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD

USA/UK/France 2016 95 mi

Voice Cast: Directors Zeva Oelbaum,
Gertrude Bell Tilda Swinton Sabine Krayenbuhl
Young Gertrude Bell
Henry Cadogan
Rose Leslie
Paul McGann
Cinematographers Gary Clarke,
Petr Hinomaz
Winston Churchill/General Maude Robert Ian Mackenzie Editor Sabine Krayenbuhl
Standard Oil man
Dick Doughty-Wylie
Richard Poe
Pip Torrens
Music Paul Cantelon

 

She roamed across deserts, loading camels with evening gowns and cutlery, slipping through ancient ruins like a spy and finding herself the lone woman at the centre of a struggle that defined the borders and politics of a Middle East that has refused to be tamed by Western powers.

Gertrude Bell was heroine, archaeologist, feminist and map-maker. She spoke Persian and Arabic, was the confidant of a king and was famously unlucky in love. The daughter of a British industrialist, her wanderings through Syria and Iraq in the early 1900s were as vital to deciphering the region as those of her more celebrated male counterpart T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Letters from Baghdad poster

A new film, Letters from Baghdad, explores the complexities of a character who was at once graceful and arrogant, erudite and earthen. The documentary is based on letters and communiqués — Tilda Swinton is the voice of Bell — that follow her from the aristocracy and drizzle of Yorkshire, England, to the scoured, arid expanses of tribesmen, Bedouinsand sheikhs. Bell called the Middle East “my second native country.”

Insights from her years of travel helped shape the boundaries of Iraq after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. That Iraq, with its uneasy balance of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, has confounded the West for decades, including two American-led wars, and the rise of ISIS, which today threatens stability from Cairo to Damascus to Dubai. Bell was prophetic on the conflicting allegiances and dangers of Western intervention in lands that were rooted in clan customs and knew little of democracy.

"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,” she said of the British occupation of Iraq in the early 1920s. “Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure if in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs?”

Such sentiments have echoed through hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars in damage, weapons and other costs since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. But Letters from Baghdad takes us on a journey before all that. Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl the film elegantly unfolds as if someone had peeked inside a steerage trunk and thumbed through the brittle pages of scrapbooks showing sailboats on the Euphrates and hieroglyphics in the moonlight.

"I have cut the thread,” Bell wrote as she vanished once again into the desert. “You will find me a savage for I’ve seen and heard strange things and they colour the mind.”

The only woman diplomat at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Bell was a curiosity in a political world dominated by men. The Ottoman Empire marked her as a spy; some of her British colleagues viewed her with suspicion and grudging admiration. Lawrence said of her: “A wonderful person, not very much like a woman, you know. … She was born too gifted perhaps.” A British newspaper headline said Bell “Explored in the Middle East ‘Like a Man.’”

She looks out from black-and-white photographs and film footage as privileged and restless; sharp nose, thin lips, pearls and cloche hats. She once hired 17 camels and travelled 1,500 miles. Her love life was just as arduous. A fiancé in Tehran died of illness and a married lieutenant colonel she adored was killed in the battle of Gallipoli. And eventually, even in the land she was most intimate with, her influence waned among onetime friend King Faisal and officials dispatched by the British foreign office.

Letters from Baghdad reaffirms Bell’s legacy as pivotal in the West’s understanding of the Middle East

Jeffery Fleishman at www.latimes.com