Letters from Baghdad (PBS Distribution, NR)

I remember sitting through Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman as the British explorer Gertrude Bell, a few years ago and thinking: “This is a terrible movie, but Gertrude Bell sounds like a really interesting person.” What a lucky break for me that there’s a much better film available today for those interested in Bell, Middle Eastern politics, or just generally how things were done in the British Empire: the documentary Letters from Baghdad, directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl.

Letters from Baghdad offers a cradle-to-grave presentation of Bell’s life, drawing on her letters and other writings (voiced by Tilda Swinton) and incorporating a variety of other archival materials supplemented by actors cast in the roles of some of her contemporaries, including T.E. Lawrence (Eric Loscheider), Vita Sackville-West (Rachael Stirling), and General Sir Gilbert Clayton (Michael Higgs).

Bell would have been an amazing woman in any time period, but to accomplish all that she did in an era when women were expected to stay home and defer to men is truly remarkable. Born to a wealthy family in England, Bell achieved a first class honors degree from Oxford University, specializing in modern history. She became a world traveler and mountain climber, publishing numerous books about the places she visited, and served as the first director of the Baghdad Antiquities Museum. Most notably, she was the only woman who exerted any substantial influence on British policies in the Middle East, a region she understood from a unique perspective, and that is the work that earned her the title of “the female Lawrence of Arabia.” Bell worked for British Intelligence during World War I, drawing maps and guiding troops through the Middle Eastern deserts, became a political officer in the British forces, and played a key role in the creation of modern Iraq. She returned to England in 1925, suffering from ill health, and died the next year from an overdose of sleeping pills (whether this was an intentional suicide or just an accident is a disputed point).

I’m not a huge fan of re-enactment in documentaries, but having actors dressed as and speaking the words of historical personages has them basically serve the same function as talking heads would in a documentary featuring people now living, and somehow that is less disturbing that, say, having an action sequence from the Civil War played out on screen as if some time-traveling (and bullet-proof) cameraman just happened to be present as it happened. Their presentations are so stylized that they are obviously performances, and seeing an actor in character deliver lines on camera is far more interesting than hearing the same words spoken by a disembodied narrator. It also helps make the story come alive, emphasizing that the characters represent real people with real lives, and who had their own collection of good and bad points, just as do people living today. | Sarah Boslaugh

Letters from Baghdad is available on DVD from PBS Distribution, with a street date of Feb. 5. There are no extras on the disc.

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