Letters to Baghdad: Progressive Documentary

Letters from Baghdad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Gertrude Bell is the story of a woman often lost in the shadows of history, yet played an influential part in the story of Iraq after World War I. Bell’s obscurity in comparison to TE Lawrence’s prominence in the history of the Middle East attests to the world and even history as being masculine centred. Director / editor Sabine Krayenbühl and director / producer Zeva Oelbaum’s documentary is constructed around primary source material and voiced by actress Tilda Swinton, revealing the overlooked story of the woman who has become known as the female Lawrence of Arabia.

ASFF: Together you combine creative disciplines – Sabine editing and yourself producing and still photography. How do your different skill sets underpin the dynamic of your collaborative relationship?
Working together on Ahead of Time, a film about Ruth Gruber, we noticed not only were we temperamentally compatible, but we were on the same track aesthetically. As a still photographer and as an editor, we are very aware of the visual. Sabine has the editing and the creation of the narrative aspect, while I can wear the producing hat for the finances. So we have these incredibly complimentary skills, but the bottom line is that if we didn’t have the same aesthetic, then there couldn’t be a partnership because that’s the basis.

ASFF: Gertrude’s words are critical to constructing her character, but the pictorial is equally important in fleshing out her world. Film unlike literature is a visual medium, and Letters from Baghdad requires you to strike a harmony between the two. Whilst it can require the subtlety of the pictorial so as to not diminish the emphasis of her words, in other moments there can be a heavily reliance on one or the other. Did this present itself as a challenge?
Yes, because if you think of archival footage it’s chopped, and especially at that time it’s snap shooting – placing the camera and following the action. There wasn’t a purpose behind it of what the direction of the camera might mean. It’s just grabbing what is and so at times we had a challenge because with some of the words you wanted to get inside of her head and her emotions more. We obviously couldn’t look at people walking on the street and so we consciously started looking for footage that would actually add to the emotional depth of the story, for example close-ups of landscapes and other things that were not necessarily directly related to the place. These would be used in sections that would have a more emotional depth and in the other sections where it was very descriptive about the place, pointing out locations, then we would obviously look for and try to find them.
ZO: It’s an interesting question because some of the time we went for incredibly gorgeous archival footage and searched for where in the narrative it could go. Then of course at other times we did the opposite. So it was a balancing act, but the visual and the narrative arc always went hand-in-hand.

ASFF: The purist opinion of documentary is that it is objective, yet if you are making choices, such as here with the use of archival footage, then it becomes subjective. Is documentary filmmaking the pursuit of finding objectivity in subjectivity and could you discuss the challenge of representing her accurately, whilst making choices for your vision of the film?
ZO: The first thing that we knew is that we didn’t want to do a hagiography, so that was Ground Zero. We had to balance all the different sides of her, and to introduce the fact that some people thought she was arrogant, some people loved her, others were threatened and on the other hand there were those who were champions of her work. So that’s what took four years among other things to give a balanced view of her and the time period. Don’t forget there are a million conflicting narratives about the establishment of these boundaries in the Middle East after World War I. We also worked with historians and we needed to be very careful because in order for the film to have a legacy and wide viewership, it had to be more than about Gertrude Bell.
SK: Sometimes that was a challenge in terms of just finding the sources because of our conceptual idea of staying with only primary source material. It was very important for us to get the Arab point of view in there and those archives are harder to come by. We fanned out in all directions and found descendants of people she mentioned. We worked with the Library and National Archives in Iraq, and thankfully they had just started to rebuild after 2003. We found old magazines including this issue of an independence leaflet that came out during their small rebellion in 1920. It lasted for only five issues but we found a few. So it carried a challenge, but it was also very rewarding when we were able to bring that point of view to the table, and counter some of the things that were said by the other characters in the film.

ASFF: Was it her own independent adventure that allowed her to appreciate the desire for independence of the Arabian states? How do you compare her sympathetic point of view compared to TE Lawrence’s?
She attended the Paris Peace Conference and was the only woman to have a diplomatic role. She was very well aware of President Wilson, The League of Nations and the fourteen points, and I think that she had great fondness for the region and its cultures, and it was also what they were supposed to be doing.
SK: What makes her stand apart from TE Lawrence is that he was there for a very short amount of time. She stayed and dedicated the second half of her life to create something she believed in strongly for the Iraqis, including the museum and public institutions. She had an appreciation of the different tribes and ethnic groups. TE Lawrence went back to England and eventually back to the Air Force, but he was momentary, whereas she had a continuous part of her life there.
ZO: She was building a nation. He was involved in the winning of the battles, but she was in it for the long haul and brought hospitals and educational institutions to Iraq.

ASFF: Could we then perceive her story as being about how a foreign place can become your home, and how as individuals we are not necessarily bound or defined by an inflexible geography?
SK: It’s funny because we always feel that she ended up being torn between the two places and ultimately wasn’t totally comfortable in either.
ZO: She couldn’t find her own place in the world.

ASFF: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
ZO: Well after four years of working on this film we would be solid as doorknobs if we didn’t broaden our own understanding of the region, the issues and the conflicts. How can we communicate a fresh perspective if we are still where we were four years ago. We would have to grow and the other thing that’s an aside, and not a direct answer is that we came to be able to view the footage in such a more educated way. We became more visually sophisticated that we could look at a street scene in Baghdad and identify who the people were, the diversity of the street scenes and so that was exciting.
SK: I think because of immersing themselves in different topics, documentarians in that way may be exposed to more of a change than let’s say a fictional director who brings their own personal vision, and repeats that in different ways. What’s interesting and actually funny that you asked this is I had a discussion with someone in Beirut. He said for him a film only works, and this is how he approaches his own filmmaking, if he brings his own story to it somehow, or rather it always has to come back to him. I thought that was very interesting because he’s not interested in another person, and that’s when he feels that he can best express himself.
ZO: In our situation it is an openness to where the story takes you that is critical.

Paul Risker

Letters from Baghdad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Gertrude Bell is released theatrically in the UK by Verve Pictures on 21 April.

1. Still from Letters from Baghdad. Courtesy of Verve Pictures.