Letters from Baghdad
It’s often been argued that documentaries have a duty towards telling the truth; that if a film presents its footage in a misleading way while simultaneously purporting to being a “factual” account of a true story, it should, perhaps, be descried as irresponsible. Of course, the real truth of it is that if a movie involves editing for emotional affect, it is a fabrication – the nub of the issue is whether the dramatic effect sheds more light on a subject than simply poring through primary sources. Does The Act of Killing tell a straightforward story of the Indonesian genocide? No. But it instigates the truth in a way that only a film could.
In this sense, Letters from Baghdad is the exact opposite of Oppenheimer’s sensibility. It tells the story of Gertrude Bell entirely through scraps of newspapers, through recreations of decade-old interviews with its subject and through the letters of Gertrude Bell herself. Bell was famous for her work in the Middle East at the start of the 20th century. She was a traveller, a writer, an archaeologist, a cartographer, a historian and a major political player who was key to the establishment of the modern state of Iraq. In short, she’s a great subject for a documentary. But through a rigid adherence to factual truth, filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have made one of the least interesting films that could be made of Bell’s life: its dry recollection of sources is little more engaging than someone reading aloud from a school textbook for 95 minutes.
Tilda Swinton voices Bell, and lends an air of gravitas to otherwise standard Ken Burns montage work. Actors play characters from history, and the footage of their talking heads is muddied to fit in with archive footage and old photographs. There’s plenty of footage of camels walking across the desert to the music of Vaughn Williams – and, if nothing else, there’s a certain air of editorial professionalism. (The legendary Thelma Schoonmaker is credited as an executive producer.)
Yet this can’t excuse the deficiencies of the film’s premise. Everything is constructed around Bell’s letters to her father, which are largely perfunctory, and sometimes have the insufferable air of a person explaining where they went on their gap year. Letters from Baghdad tries for contemporary relevance, but brushes over the complexities of history – meaning this ultimately plays as a rushed version of a series best suited for BBC Four.
Letters From Baghdad is released in selected cinemas on 21st April 2017.
Watch the trailer for Letters From Baghdad here: