In selected theaters this week from documentary filmmakers Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum along with Between the Rivers Productions are the “Letters from Baghdad.”
Narrated by Tilda Swinton, this piece tells the story of Gertrude Bell, a woman who lived an extraordinary life. Born in 1868 in England, she was born into a wealthy family. Losing her mother at the age of three, Gertrude remained close to her father Sir Hugh Bell who remarried playwright and children’s author Florence Olliffe.
Gertrude was educated at Queen’s College in London and Oxford University graduating at age 17. Her life after school became a journey through Persia in 1892. Writing about it in the book “Persian Pictures,” she spent more than 10 years travelling around the world discovering her love for archaeology.
Traveling through Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Antioch and Alexandretta, Gertrude would write about her travels in a book “Syria: The Desert and the Sown.” In 1907 she worked with archaeologist Sir William Ramsay with excavations across Syria.
When World War I came around, Bell volunteered with the Red Cross in France but would later be asked by British Intelligence on how to get soldiers across the deserts. In 1915 she went to Cairo assigned to Army Intelligence. She meets up with T.E. Lawrence where they both share their expertise.
A year later she would receive an official position to organize and process the information of the Arab tribes. Then Gertrude is sent to Basra to advise Percy Cox, a Political Officer and draw maps that would help British soldiers reach safety.
In the Middle East she would see massacres and genocide where “Turks sold Armenian women openly in the public market.” In 1919, Gertrude spends ten months in Mesopotamia writing on what needed to be done to keep the country’s peace. After which she returns to Baghdad to become Oriental Secretary and a liaison with the Arab Government.
At the Cairo Conference in 1921, Gertrude gave input on Iraq recommending Faisal bin Hussein to lead the country as King of Iraq. The new king kept Gertrude to advise him and help with the government positions selection.
Returning to what she loved, Gertrude began the Baghdad Archaeological Museum wanting to preserve the clearly stunning relics of Mesopotamia and keep them in country. Supervising the excavations, she created large collections.
In 1925, Gertrude returned home to Britain and soon after she died much to the dismay of all those who knew her accomplishments. D.G. Hogarth said, “No woman in recent time has combined her qualities, her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge — all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit”.
The Iraqi Museum today that she helped create with such attention to detail was ransacked in 2003 during the war.
The documentary “Letters from Baghdad” is an intensely personal look into the life of this extraordinary woman. During an era where a woman was definitely not to be found in war, let alone positions of importance, Bell proved she could handle anything given her.
Never married, although close, and no children, Bell took life by the wind storm and followed her passion and heart. Doing good by helping seemed to be her initial goal but it blossomed into something even more spectacular.
Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum have taken the life of this stellar woman and shared it with us all. I personally had never heard of Gertrude Bell before this documentary but you can be sure that her name and fire will never be forgotten in my mind.
This is a documentary of passion, hope, family, friends, adventure, danger and love for it all. We should all be so blessed to know a fraction of this in our lives — Gertrude Bell made it all every fiber of her life and being.
As Swinton reads Gertrude’s letters, it is in her voice that Bell comes alive! Swinton not only narrates the film but is an executive producer along with Thelma Schoomaker and Reudi Gerber.
“Letters from Baghdad” is the winner of the Audience Award by the Beirut International Film Festival and the Official Selection of the IDFA, DocNYC, BFI London Film Festival and HAIFA Film Festival.
In the end — her story is no longer untold!