Letters from Baghdad, B
Unrated, 95 minutes
The fascinating new documentary "Letters from Baghdad" is an unconventional portrait of an unconventional woman who helped shape history in her own way. Though it may have limited appeal outside historians or the intellectual set, it's a worthy look that has a treasure of information in it.
The documentary tells the of British writer and diplomat Gertrude Bell (narrated by Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton), one of the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. She shaped the destiny of Iraq afer World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, she's often overlooked in favor of her male counterparts.
Co-directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl, "Letters from Baghdad" is a rich story of one of the most famous women in history you've never heard of. A British writer, traveller and diplomat (who some also accused of being a spy), Gertrude Bell helped shape the Middle East, helping form the modern states of Jordan and Iraq as we know them today. Her story is told through a wealth of archival footage and letters, including film, diaries and many, many photographs, not to mention a unique touch from Oelbaum and Krayenbuh: "interviews" with her colleagues and family members, including T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), played by actors.
The intriguing touch is enhanced by the textured narration of Swinton, who perfectly embodies the spirit of Bell as she reads her letters. There's no doubt that Bell was a feminist and a towering figure in history, yet one that is overshadowed by her more well-known contemporaries, including the flashier Lawrence, who sold millions of books while Bell was traipsing across the Middle East in her own way.
The downside to the important history lessons of "Letters from Baghdad" is that as important a figure as Bell was, some of it's as dry as the parched land of the Middle East Bell traversed, often coming across as a stodgy college lecture. Even with its flaws, it feels like a peek inside a treasure trove of mementos and the stories they tell. This is mainly for history buffs or those who enjoy an important slice of history, who'll get the most out of the richly satisfying "Letters from Baghdad."