Sometimes a documentary’s subject is so much more interesting than the documentary itself, than you are left in two states of mind: in one hand, you had access to an inspiring topic that you may not had otherwise; on the other hand, a great character does not make for a great film, and in an era post Listen to Me Marlon, we demand way more from biographical documentaries than mere historical lip service. And so, Letters from Baghdad, by directors Sabin Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, who tells the story of ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’ Gertrude Bell, frustratingly wastes its potential to add powerful filmmaking to the portrait of an amazing historical figure.
Letters from Baghdad uses Bell’s own letters (voiced by the brilliant Tilda Swindon) to tell her story, from her Oxford school days to her time in Iraq as an UK envoy. To fill in the obvious story holes such an approach would cause, the filmmakers try out a new concept – using actors that personify Bell’s family, friends and acquaintances, in black & white shot mock interviews that provide the closest thing to an external commentary in the life of this strong willed woman. But this bold choice has a couple of issues: despite the good acting, it not only feels like a dated choice (maybe reminiscent of times when reenacted documentary was the main choice for historical matters), but it also reads as a last minute solution rather than an inspired artistic choice, as it is too peppered across the film to belong to its main structure.
But Letters from Baghdad could have still pulled it through wasn’t it for its amateur-level use of stock photos and footage. From repetition to failing to use them in an emotional way – or even as part of the storytelling – we are left wondering if the documentary wasn’t originally designed as a radio play and the video part was a last minute afterthought. Its division in chapters is particularly annoying, breaking the already tenuous flow of narrative for no good reason, and as the film before us fails to raise any kind of tension, even the most hardcore documentary fan starts wondering if we wouldn’t be better served with some good old fiction drama about Bell (note: we did have it in 2015, with the poorly received Queen of the Desert by no other than doc master Werner Herzog).
As it becomes more important than ever to understand how did the Middle East become what is today, Letters from Baghdad could have been an impressive introduction to the theme, while exalting – but not sugarcoating – the life of a true leader whose only real mistakes was to be born too soon, and under the ‘wrong’ gender. It may take a female David Lean to make Gertrude Bell justice – meanwhile, while that doesn’t happen, there’s this documentary to brave up the road.
Letters from Baghdad is in UK cinemas from 21st April.