Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2017 8:35 pm 
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A "female Lawrence of Arabia" who faced he same frustrations - or was Lawrence the male Gertrude Bell?

The "Letters from Baghdad" illustrated in this documentary and read in voiceover by Tilda Swinton, are from Gertrude Bell, one of the most accomplished and powerful Englishwomen of the early twentieth century. Her main importance is as a negotiator of the Middle East after WWI, when she met T.E. Lawrence, who said of her, "a wonderful person. Not very like a woman, you know?" But before that she was the first woman to gain highest honors in Modern History at Oxford, climbed the Swiss Alps, and explored the desert by camel. She had a passion for archeology and languages and was fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German and could also speak Italian and Turkish. Werner Herzog sought to bring Bell to life a couple years ago in his film starring Nicole Kidman, Queen of the Desert, but Letters from Baghdad is a better introduction. It consists of a wealth of film from the time, shots of actors dressed up to play various people talking about Gertrude in black and white distressed backgrounds to fit in with the period footage. A work of extensive research and fine craftsmanship, this makes for a brilliant historical portrait, auditory as well as visual - all from primary sources, as the intro text proudly announces.

Challenging Alpine exploits aside, Gertrude was most in love with the East. On a second return to Persia she said "I do not expect to be in England again, inshaallah." "I am so wildly interested in Arabic that I can think of nothing else," she wrote. She was also in love with two men, one she wanted to marry, who was rejected by her father because he was too poor and shortly after got sick and died; the other was a married man, Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, whom she corresponded to as "Dick" for several years when she was in her forties. He was British consul in Mersina, Ottoman Empire, and died at Gallipoli. The film doesn't provide a precise chronicle of the life, or of Gertrude's accomplishments. It skips relatively quickly from her twenties to her forties, so the books she's written (there are at least five) pop up without much explanation. But it brings to life a time when the British Empire was still powerful enough to stomp about and a few women could have an influence, hers, the most remarkable imaginable. She shaped modern Iraq.

For all its thoroughness and rich detail, this film can feel quite plodding at times, but what comes through clearly are the lady's passion for the "East," and its languages (Arabic, Farsi, Turkish) and her bold independent journeys across the desert by camel and archeological work. The First World War changed everything, apart from ending her epistolary romance with Maj. Doughty-Wylie, which devastated her. It made her no longer a private explorer and instead a person of interest, as a provider of crucial information to the British government. Like Lawrence, she was for the Arabs and against the Ottoman Empire, and on hand when the region was up to be rearranged after that empire crumbled. She suffered the same frustration as Lawrence of being directly on hand to watch in pain as the promise of "Mesopotamia" with Arab leaders and British advisors ended as an occupation with British rulers and Arab advisors.

Gertrude, who was regarded as arrogant by some of the Brits, was always known as "al-Khatun," an old title خاتون‎‎ khātūn used by the Turks for a woman of noble birth. Her independence and signal accomplishment were only possible because of privilege. She was born into money (her grandfather was a mining magnate), and would never have gone to Oxford had she not been. When she got her history degree she was one of three women - we see the list - at the toe of a list of dozens and dozens of men that year.

As the dividing of the spoils and the nation building took place Gertrude became a highly paid political officer, spending most of her time in Baghdad. She opposed the Zionist movement, on the grounds that it would be unfair to impose Jewish rule on Arab inhabitants of Palestine. She wrote that she regarded the Balfour Declaration with "the deepest mistrust," saying "It's like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can't stretch out your hand to prevent them" ( Wikipedia, Gertrude Bell). Before that in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement Britain and France had already allocated to themselves the right to divvy up Palestine as they saw fit. Men were astonished and scoffing to learn after she returned to England that she - a woman, had authored a 149-page white paper about the post-war disposition of "Mesopotamia." "Mystery Woman," a newspaper story we see says. "Mespot Expert." "I am so sure I'm right, that I would go to the stake for it," she wrote. "There's no getting around the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here."

Churchill, Miss Bell and T.E. Lawrence: there they are proposing that Prince Faisal be put in charge of Iraq (and Iraq to be considered a country). When he became king, Miss Bell was made his "right hand man." (He did not work out as well as she had hoped.) Vita Sackville-West visitied them both, and reports. Miss Bell was also honorary Director of Antiquities, supervising the establishment of the very "Iraq Museum" so dispicably plundered after the US's 2003 attack on Baghdad. When she was 57, in declining health, with her family back at home in deteriorating financial circumstances due to strikes and other problems after the War, depressed in her situation of less responsibility, Gertrude may have committed suicide. She died of an overdose of sleeping pills. A local obituary said she was friend to hundreds of Iraqis, but more than that, a friend to Iraq. T.E. Lawrence had said that perhaps she was "too gifted." She was extraordinary, and that's not always easy to bear for the person, or for others.

Letters from Baghdad, 92 mins., debuted at Beirut Oct. 2016; also over half a dozen other festivals including Toronto, Haifa, and DOC NYC. Various screenings scheduled, currently in the UK. Theatrical release in the Bay Area 16 Jun. 2017 at Opera Plaza, San Francisco, California Theater in Berkeley, and San Rafael.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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