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‘Letter’s From Baghdad’ Review

Last week, the University of Chicago premiered a documentary called Letters From Baghdad. It is about the life and death of archaeologist spy, and writer Gertrude Bell. Born in 1868 into a wealthy, British family, Bell received any education from Oxford and liked to travel. One of the places she went to was Persia, and she immediately fell in love with the empire. She decided to return to the Middle East and remaining there, against her father’s wishes, until her death.

The filmmakers did an excellent job of humanizing Bell. They included the personal letters she had written to family, friends and closest colleagues. The use of old footage recorded in the 1900’s gave a rare visual of the landscape, people and sounds of Iraq during Belle’s career.  She wanted adventure and to experience a culture that many of her friends in Britain considered as uncivilized. Unlike her male counterparts working for the British imperial government at the time, she had an extensive knowledge of the Iraqi people and was respected by many of them. This was due to her eagerness to learn their language and immerse herself in their culture.

Despite her versatility and understanding of the Iraqi people, she did encounter many hardships in her private life. Bell’s love life never worked out: she could not marry her fiancee because he was poor. She exchanged letters with a married soldier until his death. His demise filled her with a sorrow that sucked up whatever kindness she had. From then on she buried herself deep in her work.

The film used actors in period clothing to represent the people in her life and their perspectives. Some admired her for her intellect and tenacity but felt she was too arrogant. Others such as T.E Lawrence, a British military officer and diplomat, felt a woman should not be in his company. However, he eventually respected her as a formidable force. The actors represented the voices of these people which made the film more engaging and unique. It also helped emphasize the contradictory views of Bell. On one hand, Bell was an open-minded woman who supported the rights of Iraqi people. On the other hand, she was arrogant and extravagant in her taste.

Unfortunately, due to her sex, she has largely faded into obscurity. It is her colleague T.E Lawrence who overshadows her achievements. A movie was made about his life called Lawrence of Arabia. However, filmmakers claim he only spent a few months in Iraq. Bell lived and died there, but she has not been mentioned in many books about Iraq’s history. Letters from Baghdad shows the complex, extraordinary and tragic life of this woman who died depressed and alone at 57 after overdosing in 1926. She was involved in nation building under the imperial government. Iraqi people today both praise and condemn her role in shaping the politics of their country. Yet, Bell also advocated strongly on their behalf, feeling the British mandate was far too oppressive in its rule of the Iraqi people. If you are interested in the unknown history of unsung figures and wishes to learn more personal details about the lives of these historical figures, Letters from Baghdad will be a surprising, moving and thought-provoking film for you.

I am in my second year at Medill. I am interested in issues of race, gender, diversity, international politics, and arts/culture. When I am not busy in class or writing for Her Campus, I can be found quietly listening to music or strolling on campus.
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