Swinton is superb, and there's definitely some visual beauty to be found among the photos and footage, but the good moments are swamped by lengthy segments that feel like little more than wasted potential.
Blending performance and recreation with stock footage to tell the story of Gertrude Bell, it’s hard to call Letters from Baghdad a documentary. There are elements of a documentary here and there, but it’s unlike any that I’ve ever seen. If I had to call it something, it would probably be ‘Verbatim Cinema’. The narrative chiefly consists of a reading of Bell’s private letters with no actual interviews or analyses save for some artificial accounts by actors. It’s a highly novel concept, and given the current political climate in the Middle East, there’s no denying the importance of a film like this – helping to provide insight into the origins of the conflict. But as interesting as a premise like this sounds, it sadly never manages to find its feet.
With that being said, the scope of the film is rather incredible. For the most part, directors Sabin Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum are able to craft a coherent narrative entirely through the use of Bell’s letters, written from her time at Oxford university to her position as Oriental Secretary and her role in the establishment of Iraq. Tilda Swinton gives a great performance as the voice of Bell, delivering genuine emotions of enthusiasm and sadness in equal measure. The real Bell is also very much a character, conveyed through her letters. Through this set up, we’re offered a rather unique retelling of a significant chapter in history. Rather than being given a recount by a historian about the socio-political power struggle, we’re offered details about such things as a film screening for the women of the town in which Bell was staying and a chance encounter with a young Lawrence of Arabia at an archaeological dig.
Of course holes are left in the narrative as a result of using this approach, and so certain key details have to be filled in by actors staging mock interviews in which they play key figures in Bell’s life. These recreations, although obvious, serve their purpose adequately. But they aren’t really ever properly incorporated into the film’s narrative – only used when necessary, rather than ever becoming a proper part of the film’s structure. Even so, these intervals aren’t unwelcome or distracting and don’t in any way detract from the film’s story or structure.
Where the presentation falters is in its use of stock footage and photography. Consistency is a hard thing to strive for when compiling footage from an almost 50-year period, but the problem is not the inconsistency of the footage, more how it’s used. Atmospheric, sombre moments in the style and presentation – such at the death of Bell’s lover in World War One – and glimpses of truly stunning archival footage are outnumbered by amateurish usage of stock footage and still photography unworthy of the cheapest TV documentary. In fact, save for a chance to see a couple of interesting sequences, there appears no reason why it was needed at all. This could just as easily have been performed as a radio drama. Perhaps to an even greater effect.
The film certainly fairs better than Werner Herzog’s meandering, pompous attempt at telling Bell’s story; it chooses instead to focus on the person rather than her accomplishments, without any attempts to sugar-coat details of her life. But as commendable as that is, and despite some interesting ideas and Swinton’s best efforts, the film still comes off as nothing more than a bit lacklustre. Not an awful film by any means, but neither will it be setting any trends any time soon.
Letters from Baghdad (2016), directed by Sabin Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, was shown as part of the 2016 BFI London Film Festival. Further information about the festival can be found here.