Gertrude Bell was a pioneering writer, archaeologist, diplomat and spy whose travels led her to play a significant role in British imperial policy-making in the Middle East. Her insights and journey are documented in a new film.
An extraordinary Arabian journey
There were high hopes when acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog chose the British spy, cartographer, writer, explorer and Iraq Museum founder Gertrude Bell as the subject of a biopic.
Yet by the time Queen of the Desert premiered in February last year at the Berlinale, with Nicole Kidman starring and Damien Lewis and James Franco supporting in the roles of Bell’s two ill-fated former lovers, the disappointment was palpable.
Herzog, besotted with sweeping desert vistas, gauzy shots of Kidman and perhaps daunted by the challenges inherent in depicting post-First World War Baghdad, chose to focus mostly on Bell’s love life – largely glossing over her vast political work in favour of tortured romance.
Luckily for the growing international legion of Bell enthusiasts, at the same time two serious documentarians were quietly burrowing away through mountains of documents in New York.
Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl had long been captivated by this complicated figure, who turned away from comfortable, turn-of-the-century Victorian society for lands and people unknown, and were devoted to producing an accurate and responsible -account of her extraordinary life.
Neither Oelbaum nor Krayenbuhl expected the film to take as long as it did, yet they were in agreement that the best way to portray Bell – often referred to as the female Lawrence of Arabia, in reference to her contemporary, the British lieutenant T E Lawrence – was by drawing on as many different sources as they could find.
“We kept expecting to finish it, saying ‘oh, we’ll finish it this time next year, we’ll finish it this time next year’,” Oelbaum said.
“But the amount of research we needed to do, it just made for a richer and richer film.”
The pair spent four years searching out more than 1,000 pieces of archival footage, 1,700 primary documents and 1,600 of Bell’s letters to piece together her story, which moves from London to her travels through uncharted Arabia, where she was recruited by British military intelligence during the First World War.
Bell’s knowledge of and respect for tribal leaders positioned her to influence Britain in the post-war wrangling over the region – in the process shaping Iraq and the modern Middle East.
Their documentary, Letters from Baghdad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Gertrude Bell, will finally have its world premiere at the Beirut International Film Festival on Thursday night.
Oelbaum, an American producer and photographer, and Krayenbuhl, who is Swiss, met in 2008 when they worked on a film about a female trailblazer, Ruth Gruber, who became the world’s youngest PhD at 20 in the 1930s.
That film, Ahead of Time, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, drew them to Bell.
“I thought Ruth must know about her, but I asked her and she said no,” Krayenbuhl said.
Gruber may not have heard of her but Oelbaum had and that started off a discussion.
It turned out Krayenbuhl and Oelbaum had travelled extensively through Bell territory years earlier.
Krayenbuhl, who made a trip through Syria in 2000, had become captivated by Bell’s early exploits mountaineering in the Swiss Alps and felt an affinity for her in “making a home away from home” as Krayenbuhl did after moving to the United States in 1986.
“So then in 2003, with the American invasion, I was watching the news and I thought ‘wait a second, isn’t that the museum that Gertrude Bell created?” she recalled. “I thought ‘wow, there’s so much, there’s so many parallels, this is a story that should be told, especially with the museum being looted.”
Oelbaum, who travelled through Syria, Turkey and Iran while at college, later read Bell’s biography, among other books about how the Middle East was shaped and carved up after the First World War.
“I just really fell in love with Gertrude Bell,” she said.
“I just felt that she was vulnerable and arrogant and complicated and it was really unexpected, because I didn’t go in reading the book one way or another.
“I was surprised at how connected I felt to her.”
The pair had a vision to make a film about Bell, who died in 1926 at the age of 58, without using jarring “talking head historians”, said Oelbaum, but rather actors to depict her contemporaries speaking about her, paired with archival footage.
“Our goal was having the viewer immersed in the experience,” she said.
“We wanted to have people talking about Gertrude Bell, we wanted to have, in real time, the conflict between the Iraqis and the [British] colonial office.”
The film, which cost more than US$1million (Dh 3.67m), was partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign. More than $90,000 was raised.
The result is a film that features the British actress Tilda Swinton as the voice of an adult Bell, more than 22 actors voicing the words of her contemporaries, and many photographs never before made public.
It is comprehensive, absorbing and compelling.
The ill-fated romances, first with the young foreign office diplomat Henry Cadogan in Iran and later with the married Victoria Cross recipient Charles Doughty-Wylie, are covered but not the focus.
That is kept on the knowledge Bell amassed of the region, its people and politics as she travelled through the desert with her entourage.
Although Oelbaum and Krayenbuhl felt Bell’s lasting legacy was her passion for the preservation of regional antiquities and her tireless work in opening the Iraqi Museum, both were captivated by her skills as a bridge-builder and diplomat who spoke fluent Arabic and possessed a true respect for the people of the region, their religions, culture and customs.
“When the British came to Iraq it was the most diverse country in the Middle East,” Krayenbuhl said.
“Bell was aware of that and was able to communicate with everyone. She respected, and had a true passionate interest, in the other person whereas her British colleagues were derogatory and much less interested.”
It’s not fair to saddle Bell with the perceived modern-day failures of Iraq, the women argue; not only was her approach the antithesis of oil-hungry, post-war colonialism, largely unconcerned with local culture or religion, her focus was on the tribal areas and people she had become familiar with during her travels along the southern borders.
After speaking to members of Bell’s family as part of their -research, the women believe she took her own life with an overdose.
But neither believe, as many do, that her depression was caused by the deaths of her two life loves.
Instead they believe it came from her being increasingly ill and, as a workaholic who once called her duties a narcotic, becoming despondent at being marginalised in the day-to-day administration in Baghdad while facing dwindling family resources and few prospects back in England.
“She feels more and more lonely and there isn’t really a use for her to go back home,” Krayenbuhl said.
Letters from Baghdad will be shown at the BFI London Film Festival on Sunday and Monday.
Oelbaum and Krayenbuhl hope to bring it to the UAE at some point and to partner with universities and colleges to use it as a teaching tool.
“Bell was a champion of tolerance,” Oelbaum said. “She really believed in it and she lived it, and we can learn from that.”