'Letters from Baghdad"

Tuesday, May 2, 7:30 p.m.
Cinema 505, 505 Bloomfield Ave.


Archival footage, check.

Voiceover, by famous actress, check.

Talking heads, check.

Talking heads who died 85 years ago—


T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) appears in Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl’s feature documentary, “Letters from Baghdad,” giving his opinion of Gertrude Bell?

Bell was a Victorian woman who traveled extensively in the Middle East, and even helped establish the new country of Iraq after World War I. She died in 1926 at the age of 58.

The directors talked to us from London, where the film was having a premiere. “Letters from Baghdad” will have a theatrical release in New York City on June 2.

Krayenbühl said that while she and Oelbaum originally thought they would make a fiction feature, they were “stunned and incredibly thrilled” when they saw the beautiful archival footage that was available. There were also expressive letters from Bell.

Early on, said Oelbaum, “We knew we needed more than Gertrude Bell’s voice. If we only had Bell talking about her experiences, it would have less reach in being a view of the colonial office, and of the establishment of Iraq.”Oelbaum said she wanted to show how Bell’s colleagues saw her, and show the challenges she faced as a woman.

So she and Krayenbühl made a film as though they were interviewing individuals about Bell, about three years after she’d died. Krayenbühl said, “The obvious straightforward approach would be to include contemporary experts, archaeologists, and Middle East experts giving commentary. “We wanted to have the viewer be immersed in that time, like they were living in that time, and draw their own conclusions.”

The pair received two NEH grants for the film, and worked on putting together three years of primary source materials. “We were really steeped in the people, history and personalities,” Oelbaum said. “We saw the individuals in regard to Gertrude Bell, and not in regard to Gertrude Bell.”

The movie is a co-production with the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. The directors shot the interviews on 16-mm film, so it would blend into the archival footage, but, said Oelbaum, “We did not intend to confuse people. We set up the film not only to get people to think about contemporary relevance and parallels, and we also made a point of saying that all the dialogue is taken from primary source material.”

Krayenbühl said that people do get sucked in, and then “at some point become aware that ‘wait a second, this can’t be.’”

Others understand the convention right from the start.

“The cinematic experience is very important,” she continued. “Often archival footage looks really crappy. Some people asked us if we shot the scenes in Baghdad.” They didn’t, but they did have the archives rescan the negatives to achieve a crisp look, she said.

When the women first chose Bell for their subject, Iraq was not in the headlines so much, Oelbaum said. “Bell was contradictory. She presented one face to her colleagues around her but then a very different and sometimes vulnerable face to her family.”

And, said both women, she’s still relatively unknown.

“A recent biography, Scott Anderson’s ‘Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East’ doesn’t mention Gertrude Bell even in a footnote.” Anderson has seen the film, and been very supportive, Oelbaum said.

So why is Bell forgotten?

Priya Satia, a professor of British history at Stanford, suggested to Oelbaum that for decades, going out into the desert was a test of British masculinity
“So when Gertrude Bell did it, all of a sudden it diminished the men who had done it,” Oelbaum explained.

Bell was mostly written out of history.