Film – Letters From Baghdad

Letters from Baghdad

Steve Taylor-Bryant watches a film from the London Film Festival Journey section as he learns all about Gertrude Bell thanks to Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum…

Gertrude Lowthian Bell, sometimes called the "female" Lawrence of Arabia was a British adventurer, archaeologist and political powerhouse, who helped shape the modern Middle East after World War I. Voiced and executive produced by Tilda Swinton, the film chronicles Bell's journey into the uncharted Arabian desert and all-male halls of colonial power with never-seen-before archival footage of the region shot a century ago. The film takes us into a past that is eerily current.

I didn’t know the name of Gertrude Bell for my shame. I wasn’t taught about this amazing lady at school, but that isn’t really an excuse as I could have picked up a book, but waiting for this film makes all the excuses go away and it is a stunning film indeed. Tilda Swinton, as the voice of Gertrude Bell, takes us on a journey via Bell’s letters to her family that takes her from Oxford University to drawing the actual borders on the map for we now know in our modern day as Iraq. The history of the period is a fascinating one, and the involvement of Gertrude Bell, her ability with languages, her independent almost rebellious streak, makes for a wonderful tale and a fantastic learning experience. Swinton’s voice holds your attention from beginning to end and when you add in such great stars of stage and screen as Paul McGann, Michael Higgs, and Adam Astill the narration and almost biopic sections are of the highest quality but the biggest star is what is actually shown on screen.

Letters from Baghdad

There's film of Gertrude herself and, accompanied by her own photographs, you see the beauty that she saw in her new surroundings, with her letters you learn that some saw her as a spy and her journey had the British government incredibly nervous and cutting off support. Her diary entries presented by Swinton are compelling and I am scratching around now to find a book that contains these pages within in. In researching the film, learning of its early crowdfunding to get made, I learned that some call Gertrude Bell the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’. Thanks to this film I found her to be so much more than just a female version of anyone, instead I found a brave woman, an adventurer that deserves more recognition, someone who lived through the era where women were held back by men and actually took part in changing our history.

This film is a must watch for anyone that wants a fascinating look at explorers, at women in history or at how the world and that region in particular have changed over the last century.

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