Documentary ‘Letters from Baghdad’ provides an insightful portrait of a groundbreaking explorer

Gertrude Bell Archive

The delegates of the Mespot Commission at the Cairo Conference in Cairo. The group was set up by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to discuss the future of Arab nations. From the film “Letters From Baghdad.”

“LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD” — 2½ stars — Ammar Haj Ahmad, Adam Astill, Tom Chadbon, Simon Chandler, Joanna David; not rated, probable PG for discussions of adult content; Broadway

The events of the last 15 years have kept Iraq in American headlines for some time, and various films have been made that are connected to the 2003 invasion and its aftermath. “Letters from Baghdad” is an insightful film that goes back much further to explain some of the context for what we are seeing in the 21st century.

Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, “Letters from Baghdad” is a documentary profile of Gertrude Bell, an adventurous explorer who played a key role in the formation of the Iraqi state in the aftermath of World War I. The film is assembled from a combination of Bell’s own still photographs and file footage, and narrated by actress Tilda Swinton, who reads Bell’s letters to her father.

The film moves chronologically, beginning with Bell’s birth in England in 1868. She was born into a wealthy family, and Bell’s mother died when her daughter was only 3 years old. Though her father eventually remarried, Bell’s close relationship with him became a strong thread for the rest of her life. Before settling in on her experiences in the East, “Letters from Baghdad” details her education at Oxford, where her brash personality complemented her academic prowess.

Eventually, she arrived in Tehran in 1892, and a failed engagement to a man named Henry only contributed to her growing love of the East. Thanks to her wealth and position, she traveled extensively and published a book on Syria that was accompanied by her own prolific photography.

Almost from the beginning, Bell is looked upon with suspicion by her wary hosts, who are surprised by both her bravado and her gender. Her…

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