Letters From Baghdad
Gertrude Bell was one of the most influential women in modern history — but most people don’t know that. The documentary Letters From Baghdad, however, goes a long way in proving this point.
Like her more well-known contemporary T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), Bell spent much of her life on location in early 20th century Arabia, where she met and built friendships with both nomadic and established tribes alike.
Although the intrepid, gender-defying explorer was recently the main subject of a narrative feature film, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (2015), which starred Nicole Kidman in the lead role, it’s in Letters From Baghdad that her important life’s work is more fully fleshed out.
Bell was many things: a writer, a world traveler, a likely British spy. But most importantly, she was an archaeologist who walked the walk and excavated ancient sites when the Arab sands were still virgin. In addition to her work mapping, excavating and preserving lost Arabian cities, she was also an instrumental figure in the formation of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (since renamed the Iraqi Museum), and the right wing of the museum was even named in her honor shortly after her death.
Her extensive travels in Persia, Mesopotamia and Greater Syria resulted in several books and maps that were instrumental in dividing up the region into what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. The ultimate tragedy, however, was Bell’s part in drawing the borders of what is now Iraq at the end of WWI, as her altruistic stance was ultimately defeated by corporate interest.
Bell, along with T. E. Lawrence, supported Arab independence. But British colonialism — plus the desire to control the oil reserves of the area — put a dent in those plans. The effects of the British empire’s fateful decisions in this area are unfortunately still being felt to this day.
A famous photo from the era, that shows just how important and valued Bell was as a political agent of the British empire during her time spent in Arabia, shows a group of people on horses underneath The Sphinx in Cairo, Egypt. Under the head of The Sphinx, like three ducks sitting in a row, are Winston Churchill, Bell and Lawrence.
Much of the novelty of Letters From Baghdad comes from the substantial achievement of period re-creation through existing film shot during the era. The grainy black-and-white images show village life, life along rivers and desert views that are among archetypal images of such places.
The voice of Bell in the documentary is spoken by Tilda Swinton, and the text is taken from official records and personal writings and letters. Other participants in Bell’s life are dramatized by actors portraying people such as Lawrence; the wife of a diplomat; or even British officials who were complicit in undermining Bell’s efforts to unify the existing territories.
Bell died in Baghdad in 1926 at the age of 58 and remains buried there to this day. The museum she basically created — the same museum that was looted during the 2023 invasion of Iraq — housed many of the antiquities she helped discover.
The images of life in a simpler time, that were captured over a hundred years ago by film cameras, give Letters From Baghdad the requisite credibility to be a must-see on your film to-do list.
Letters From Baghdad unwinds exclusively at the River Oaks Theatre starting this weekend.