A woman who made a difference – for better or worse

Letters from Baghdad fails to fully acknowledge Gertrude Bell's colonialist impact on the middle east

Gertrude Bell on horseback

You know the sort, an eccentric Oxonion scholar-bureaucrat with an interest in wandering around the Middle-East of the early twentieth century. These characters and figures are likely to be understood instantly in terms of the politics that made their scholarship possible, specifically colonialism. For better or for worse.

Sometimes we focus on the problems of colonialist politics a little too much, but should we not be attentive to them at all just because the person in question scouring the land for antiquities was a product of Lady Margaret Hall rather than Balliol?

The first half of the film Letters from Baghdad by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, on the life of the path breaking colonial administrator Gertrude Bell, unwittingly made me think about this question a great deal.

This is because it is an epistolary film, centred around the unquestionably colourful, though tragic letters that Bell exchanged during the time she spent in the Middle East during the early years of the previous century.

It also features letters and observations about Bell spoken by actors playing her contemporaries, filmed in black and white. This structure means that it is heavily reliant on Bell’s own observations about herself and her colleagues and so inherently uncritical about Bell’s own life.

Perhaps to another reviewer this would not be an issue, since Bell unquestionably had her own difficulties to overcome as a woman. The film captures this well in the first fifteen or so minutes, focussing on the period of her life before she went eastwards. Shots of Oxford from the 1880s, when Bell arrived at the women’s only Lady Margaret Hall, of young men following the rowing along the river, and on their bicycles in the middle of town, are generous and so transport you to that time where considerably more students faced significant disadvantages compared to their peers.

Thankfully it is not overly sentimentalised, even though Bell achieved great academic success, leaving with a first-class degree in history in two years, at the age of 19. Snide, though possibly even bewildered or ‘concerned’, references to Bell’s “Oxfordy manner” and therefore ‘male characteristics’ see to this.

Her male contemporaries also thought of her as not a particularly suitable wife, and her decision to spend some time in Persia, where her uncle was a British Minister based in Tehran, and where she would become fluent in Arabic and Persian.

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This part of the film also quickly establishes the film’s second greatest strength, after the restrainedeloquence of Bell’s writing: the lavish video footage from the period plays as the voice of Tilda Swinton, the academy award winning Scottish actress, reads Bell’s thoughts with perfection.

The collection of footage and Swinton’s intonation would perhaps be reason enough to go and watch this film. But importantly, as the film becomes more overtly political its colonial Eat Pray Love like quality quickly wears off, and we are allowed to appreciate her life in all its aspects.

In the middle of the film Bell speaks of the “well spent morning at the office” where she delineates the boundaries of the state that would become Iraq. Bell affirms a need to support the Sunni establishment in a country numerically dominated by Shi’a, and to install the Arab Hashemite prince Faisal as King of Iraq. If not enough time is spent on the terrible consequences of these decisions, we hear from Bell as she is being side-lined at the Paris Peace Conference where she speaks of the combination of compromise, venality and ineptitude with which the victorious powers were settling the boundaries of the modern Middle East.

Gertrude Bell was at the centre of epoch making events, and despite certain failings Letters from Baghdad compellingly shows what taking the initiative to live life in the midst of grand events entails.