Letters from Baghdad

Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum


There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
NEXT: Paris Can Wait


Ahead of Time

Ahead of Time

Ruth Gruber, back in the day.

(2009) Documentary (Vitagraph) Ruth Gruber, Louisa Herz Leopold, Eli Wallach (voice), Dava Sobel, Lee Taylor, Harold Ickes, Manya Hartmayer Breuer, Tom Segey, Ike Aronowitz, Mordechai Rossman, Therese Plummer (voice). Directed by Robert Richman

Some people live extraordinary lives. We know about a lot of them – Amelia Earhart, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Onassis – but some we hear little or nothing about. In a few cases that’s truly a shame.

Ruth Gruber is one. A strong-willed, sharp-as-a-tack woman who got her doctorate at 18, she worked for the government documenting Alaska as a homesteading location for soldiers prior to World War II, she also worked for the State department smuggling Jewish refugees into the United States during the war, documenting attacks on refugee ships after it.

She was a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily News and bore witness to some of the most significant events of the 20th century. She was often allowed where no other women were – to the new state of Jordan (she was the first female journalist allowed in) the Soviet Union and on board the Exodus, a refugee ship that had been denied access to Israel by the British and was turned back to send the Holocaust survivors to Germany.

97 years old when this was filmed (she will turn 100 this year), she is still as sharp as ever and is very objective about her own life story, which shows her journalistic training. She has a fascinating story to tell, and nobody tells it as well as she does during the course of the film.

Unfortunately director Richman (who was a cinematographer on An Inconvenient Truth) tends to use a lot of talking heads here and despite the fascinating subject, the movie gets awfully dry in places. That’s just kind of a forewarning.

The subject is so fascinating that you can’t help but be sucked in however. Ruth Gruber is the kind of role model that most women would be proud to emulate – if they knew who she was.

WHY RENT THIS: A portrait of an amazing woman who most people don’t know much about these days.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit talky and sometimes a bit dry.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of smoking but otherwise nothing you couldn’t show to the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gruber was close friends with author Virginia Woolf early in her career.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,024 on an unreported production budget; the movie might have broken even.


TOMORROW: John Carpenter’s The Ward