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Bishops Castle Film Society

Letters from Baghdad - 8th Nov 2017

Zeva Olebaum/Sabine Krayenbuh, UK/US/Fr, 97m

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) has been overlooked by historians. Her stepmother, Florence Bell, has received more attention, partly for her book on the workforce at her husband’s (Gertrude’s father) ironworks in Middlesbrough. Gertrude herself, however, was a distinguished student in History at Oxford University, who went on to develop her talents in many fields. She was a writer, linguist, traveller, archeologist, and diplomat (a spy as well), who spent much of her life in the Middle East. During and just after the First World War she knew as much as anyone from the West about the country that came to be known as Iraq. Bell was instrumental in the re-shaping of the old Ottoman Empire into a collection of countries that fell under the influence of Britain and France. She has been cast by some as a female TE Lawrence. This is unfair: he might equally well be described as a male Gertrude Bell. Letters From Baghdad film is an imaginative, factual reconstruction of Bell’s life in Mesopotamia using techniques that bring together film footage, music, and extracts from written memoirs spoken by actors. Bell is voiced by Tilda Swinton. Its staging therefore sets it apart from the conventional ‘documentary’ to produce a novel account of a very interesting woman with much relevance to the 21st century.

 

"Major kudos to the filmmakers for enlivening the doc with countless absorbing bits. For example, we find out that she “never mastered the art of spelling.” Bell’s deep affection for her father is vividly and touchingly brought to life. Smaller scenes stick out, like Bell’s visit to the ruins of Babylon, or setting up screenings for Arabian women, or Winston Churchill expressing admiration for the woman. The actors all do commendable jobs, giving the film a theatrical flair, but also broadening its scope and entertainment factor. Archival photos come to life, real footage gets seamlessly interweaved with re-enactments – all devices that complement Bell’s story and spice up the documentary format’s predictable structure." [Alex Savaliev, Irish Film Critic, 13.6.2017]


 

 

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