In a decidedly non-traditional documentary, we’re introduced to 20th century heroine Gertrude Bell, sometimes known as the female Lawrence of Arabia. Born in 1868, Bell was a woman of many talents, dabbling in archaeology, travels to the Middle East, cartologist and explorer, who was integral to policy-making and could be said to be key to the creation of the modern Middle East.
This isn’t the first time a film has made Bell the center of attention; just last year Alien director Ridley Scott made Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman as Bell, but was panned by critics. What does this film bring to the table then?
Letters From Baghdad isn’t your straight up History Channel-esque documentary though. It takes the form of a re-enactment, a bold and creative choice from directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum. Set three years after Bell’s death in 1926, the film uses real life actors to play Bell’s contemporaries and families, using verbatim dialogue from the impossibly large amount of primary sources gathered by Krayenbühl and Oelbaume.
The film’s biggest star of course, is Tilda Swinton, who plays Bell and narrates her titular letters in voiceover. Filmed in black and white, Letter From Baghdad overlays Swinton’s voiceover on real archival footage, and intersperses that with ‘interviews’ with her friends and family. There is a shocking attention to detail, and the actors who play the interviewees bear a striking resemblance to old photos of the actual people. If you weren’t aware of the year the film was supposed to be ‘made’, you’d be taking a second look to make sure that these aren’t the actual ghosts of history that’ve made an appearance onscreen. In addition, the footage in the film is all authentic, and adds to the believability of Letters, showing up as Bell tells of meeting new people and breaking new ground on her travels.
By the end of the film, viewers would have gotten a full idea of Bell, warts and all, according to her letters and contemporaries. She’s not always a hero, oftentimes making questionable decisions along the way, as revealed in her letters, and not loved by all, but that is precisely why this documentary is so revealing, so well-rounded, and most of all, has a narrative with emotional punch. It’s not a complete biography of Bell, but it’s comprehensive, and acts as a great entry point into her life for new audiences.
Sabine Krayenbühl is an established editor who has worked on the Oscar and Independent Spirit Award nominated My Architect. Zeva Oelbaum went into film following a career as a still photographer, with her work appearing in publications such as Thew New York Times Magazine. The two have previously worked together before on the film Ahead of Time, about the prodigous photojournalist Ruth Gruber, which garnered 7 Best Documentary Awards at the Toronto International Film Festival. We managed to get in a few words with Sabine and Zeva:
BCM: How did you guys decide on Gertrude Bell as the subject for this documentary?
Sabine: She’s a very fascinating woman who’s complex and complicated, and a great character for a movie. She’s really inspiring for young women and women in general, because there’s a lot of contemporary relevance in her story.
Zeva: What was also interesting to us was that she had a private self, a vulnerable persona, and her public self was very arrogant, so you have this dual dynamic going on that comes across so well in her letters to her family, in contrast to what the people would say about her. And also, the other thing that really appealed to us was that she was someone very different from other Victorians in her time. She was open minded, she was tolerant, she had real respect for other cultures, and we really felt she was a chapion for diveristy, and that is always in style.
BCM: I’ve noticed that in both your works, you’ve always been drawn to strong female characters in history!
Sabine: Absolutely! We actually met each other while working on the Ruth Gruber documentary Ahead of Time, and that’s where the topic of Gertrude Bell popped up for the first time. I actually read up on Gertrude Bell’s travels through the Middle East and mentioned it to someone we were interviewing for the other film, but Zeva and I both said it’d make a fascinating story!
Zeva: There are definitely parallels. Gertrude Bell was the first woman to get a first in modern history, while Ruth Gruber was the youngest PhD in the world in 1931. They were both into photography and they were diplomatically involved.
Sabine: They were both also writers for the newspaper.
BCM: Documentaries are making a comeback, what’s the research process like for this film, particularly with regards to the found footage?
Sabine: It took us 4 years. Initially we worked with her letters and the archive at Newcastle University, then really expanding from there to other archives to find what other people thought of her, the people she interacted with so we could get a complete idea of her and not just her point of view.
Zeva: In terms of the footage, we were very uncertain as to what we would end up with, since we were looking for footage shot 100 years ago in the Middle East. But the very first clip that we got was at the beginning of the film, the dock in Baghdad and the people unpacking the boxes and it was just so stunning that we started to look all over the world and found remarkable footage partly because during that period people wanted to go out into the world and bring it back to their family and colleagues. We have a lot of stunning footage that had never been digitized.
Sabine: At the time it was still a new medium, literally the dawn of cinema. People who could afford a camera would hire cameramen and photographers and say ‘here go shoot, bring back memories’. It was a time of collection for bringing the world back to their communities. Of course the question was whether it was going to survive. Sometimes we’d find footage in terrible shape. But as long as we could scan it, if it wasn’t too brittle, we could use it.
Zeva: But we didn’t use all the footage of course. Sometimes the archives just said ‘oh you can’t restore this’, but that happened a lot less than we expected!
BCM: Why did you decide to go for re-enactment, as opposed to a straight up documentary a la History Channel?
Sabine: We knew we didn’t want to make a classic documentary where you have contemporary historians and experts examining the period and giving their point of view. We really want to make a movie that would be in the time at the time and so to create a dialogue, not just voiceover, we also wanted her to have an interaction with her contemporaries. So the idea behind the film came as d ocuemtnary that could have been done 3 years after her death. So we looked at photos of the people we wanted to ‘interview’ and were very precise with the actors we cast, people who really resembled them and about the age they would be 3 years after her death. So we also made sure that if they weren’t alive then, they’d only appear as a voiceover.
Zeva: One question that always comes up is why her father Hugh Bell isn’t in the film. The reason is because we never found his diaries, or any of his writings. All our script is taken from primary source material, because we wanted to create an immersive experience with the viewer and waht’s interesting to us is that there were many women who were choked up at the end of the film and crying. That sort of thing is just not possible if you have historians or other people in a classic documentary. We really wanted an environment where you felt Gertrude Bell and felt like you knew her.
Sabine: The archival footage is usually a ‘B-roll’, but in our film, because of the characters, they become ‘A-roll’ and a primary focus. They’re like characters in a play, and these are their words verbatim.
Zeva: We’d like to make a case for re-enactment, but we know that’s a very touchy subject with the purists.
BCM: Tilda Swinton brought so much life to Gertrude Bell. How did she come on board the project?
Zeva: She was actually friends with one of our producers and it turns out Tilda actually wanted to make a project about Gertrude Bell that fell through and was very happy to be engaged n our project. And she was so fabulous to work with, and really made Bell come alive in a way that only she could do.
BCM: What’s the next project?
Zeva: We have a few things percolating…
Sabine: But we have to let this all digest first, we’re still at the beginning of this and it’s a lot of work and we’re a small team and we are understaffed. We ahve assistants and all but we’re still focusing very much on bringing this film around.
Zeva: But we do have some ideas cooking. Possibly another unknown female character in history.
BCM: If you could meet one historical figure, who would you meet?
Sabine & Zeva: Gertrude Bell, definitely!
Zeva: We probably wouldn’t talk to her, but just act as a fly on the wall, observe and be in the same space as her.
BCM: If Gertrude Bell watched the film, how would she react?
Zeva: She’d be furious. She was not into self-promotion! Who knows, after 100 years she might have appreciated it, but she explicitly instructed her parents that she did not want to be interviewed, didn’t want them to be interviewed, didn’t want her picture to be in the papers and wanted to remain under the radar. But we were in touch with her descendants and they loved the film.
Sabine: She has a niece who is still alive in Yorkshire and she was very moved by it.
Zeva: Not to mention all the descendants of her half-siblings!
Sabine: They were also very instrumental in getting us photographs and access.
Zeva: What’s interesting is that one of them said there were always very polite people coming to them and doing a documentary on Gertrude Bell, over the last 10 years, but it’s never actually happened, so they were thrilled that our film was actually completed and it’s of such a high quality and we’re really proud of it.
Sabine: It’s really daunting actually. We thought at one point it could be a series and we decided let’s just go ahead and we were like ‘what did we get ourselves into?!’
Zeva: We had THOUSANDS of primary sources! Thousands of clips, thousands of photographs.
Sabine: We plan to give most of these sources to the university for reference.
BCM: How do you feel about the situation for female directors in the film industry?
Zeva: I think there’s been progress made, it’s on the continuum, it’s always improving and it’s on people’s radars. But we’re ‘glass is half-full’ kind of people, so we see it positively.
Sabine: We were really inspired by Clio Barnard’s The Arbor. It was so interestingly done, the form and the quality. We also like Agnès Varda’s documentaries, she did a film called Vagabond. There are just so many people out there who are so great and inspirational!
Zeva: And hopefully 2016 is truly the time we all get to shine.