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June 1, 2017



produced by: Zeva Oelbaum
directed by: Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum 
rated: Unrated 
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: June 2, 2017


“I’m happy in feeling that I’ve got the love and confidence of this country.”


I’m not entirely sure if the new documentary “Letters from Baghdad” is a passion project for actress Tilda Swinton, but it would seem to be as she pulls double duty as both narrator and one of seventeen credited producers on the film. I also don’t necessarily know that I can fairly call the film a documentary as it is features one of the stranger conceits I can think of in a film that labels itself as such. Veteran documentary editor Sabine Krayenbühl (“The Bridge,” “Mad Hot Ballroom”) takes the helm for the first time alongside another novice director, Zeva Oelbaum, in what can best be called a mixed bag of an experience; an extraordinary story told in an extraordinarily bizarre way.

“Letters from Baghdad” tells the story of Gertrude Bell, a woman often reductively referred to as “the female Lawrence of Arabia”. There are more than a few passing similarities between Bell and T.E. Lawrence – both were multilingual, Oxford educated expats who found more in common with the people of the Middle East than they did with their own English countrymen – but Bell’s story will likely find more resonance in the modern age. Couple this with the fact that Bell’s life ultimately had more in common with other fiercely independent agents of change like Susan B. Anthony and the similarities to Lawrence seem secondary by comparison.




“Letters from Baghdad” tells the fascinating story of Bell’s life with Swinton giving voice to Bell’s writings via voiceover narration. Where things really go askew, however, is in the film’s inexplicable decision to use actors as on-screen representatives of people from Bell’s life in an attempt to make some sort of talking heads style documentary. This decision is all the more baffling in light of the fact that the filmmakers have access to tons of actual home movie footage from the era. This strange conceit of using actors to portray the real people involved in Bell’s story cheapens the overall impact of the film.

Reenactments have been used in documentaries since the beginning of the form – “Nanook of the North,” a film considered by many to be the first documentary, is rife with moments that were recreated for the cameras – but here they seem designed to infuse the film with more authenticity. If anything, they end up giving it the opposite effect, tarnishing the real footage and calling its veracity into question as a result. How can we be sure that anything we’re seeing is real when the filmmakers lie so blatantly to the audience from the moment the film starts?




Perhaps it’s the power of Bell’s story and her words that help the film to transcend its many problems. Interestingly enough, Werner Herzog – a man known as much for his documentary work as his narrative work – brought her story to the screen earlier this year with “Queen of the Desert” starring Nicole Kidman. I haven’t seen it, but I suspect it doesn’t suffer from these same issues only because it’s up front about being a dramatization of true events.

I can’t help but wonder what possessed filmmakers sitting on a treasure trove of real documentary footage to spice it up with a bunch of cut rate talking head interviews, but it almost completely killed the overall experience. With all those producers involved, you think someone would have raised a simple question… “Why?” Doing something for the sake of being different isn’t enough, and it’s all the more perplexing when there’s such an interesting story being told. Why do anything to get in the way of a good story?




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