Review: Letters From Baghdad

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Review: Letters From Baghdad

Dirs. Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl.

This documentary is supremely researched, and its findings turn up a delicious pot of history for us to sink our teeth in to as we watch. It tells the dramatic and inspiring story of Gertrude Bell, who was at any one time:

a spy, an explorer, a dignitary, an archaeologist, a translator, and politician.

This woman has an incredible resume, especially for a female Briton at the turn of the 20th century. And yet almost no one has heard of her.



This documentary changes that, and exposes the colourful and wonderful life of Gertrude Bell.

She’s described as an ‘orgy of independence’, a fiercely headstrong woman who rode in to the Middle East on camelback and never wanted to return to Victorian London. She was a friend and confidant to Arab people, and ‘most of all, to Iraq itself’. This female Lawrence of Arabia (who has her close friend and colleague) traversed the Arabian desert and found new water wells, languages and tribes – invaluable knowledge for Iraqis and colonialists alike.

Review: Letters From Baghdad

Gertrude Bell, on camelback, between Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia.

The documentary shows glorious colour graded footage, nearly 100 years old at this point, giving us a sumptuous glance at the Middle East that’s a welcome detour from the current smorgasbord of violence and despair on our modern screens. Instead we were served images of a bustling high street, thriving businesses and smiling happy faces in the desert. This is a culture that is rich in history, family values, and ancient culture.

And yet the issues explored in this documentary are eerily current: foreign imposed rule, governmental instability, poverty and rebellious uprisings – Iraq’s history, while beautiful, is also frequently blemished with dark moments of difficulty and suppression.

Bell saw the country for all its glory though, and never once faltered in her conviction of its eventual blooming. She fell in love with Mesopotamia, and as well as drawing the modern borders of Iraq, she is also the founder of the Iraqi National Museum, opened after 10 years of diligent curation.

A friend and powerful ally to the Middle East, this story of Gertrude Bell is a beautiful exploration of primary sources and information that shed light on a new corner of history, that not only teaches us lessons of the past but also of the future.


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Lauren Turner is an Australian media specialist and keen cinephile. She loves Robert Eggers and can be found at her local offbeat cinema in Melbourne.

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