Thursday, July 13, 2017

The "female" Lawrence of Arabia

Letters from Baghdad (opening Friday at the Main Art and AMC Classic Fairlane) is an extraordinary documentary about the life of British historian, diarist, adventurer, scholar, photographer, archeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell. The film follows Werner Herzog’s 2015 Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman as Bell, a well-meaning but dramatically unsatisfying treatment of, as she’s been called, the “female” Lawrence of Arabia. Although having greater influence, her tale, due to misogyny has, as the directors, Sabine Krayenb├╝hl and Zeva Oelbaum say, essentially been “written out” of history……Bell, an Orientalist, from a young age had a fascination with Arab culture and spent roughly 30 years in the Middle East between the 1890's and 1926, when she died. Amazingly, for the period, she travlled fearlessly across desert - on one occasion 1500 miles on camelback - writing, charting and studying the region. She, reluctantly because a woman, was hired by British intelligence at the time of the Ottoman occupation, giving way to the British. Some of this you may have heard or read about before. Certainly, Herzog’s film never went into this detail. But what perhaps many don’t know is her integral involvement in creating the modern Iraq state, including drawing its borders. She also was “right hand man” to the British-installed first king, Faisal. The film depicts Bell as a benevolent imperialist, seeking self-determination for Iraqis and ruing the harsh whip of British rule, including bombing villages that didn’t pay taxes. “We rushed into this business with out usual disregard,” she says in one of her more than 1600 letters to family and colleagues back in Britain.  One might eerily draw the conclusion: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” a foreshadowing of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which the film obviously is arguing. Significantly, Bell, who died from an overdose in 1926, is buried in Baghdad. And she created the famed Iraq Museum, ransacked during the invasion. So, yes, Bell echoes through the century…..Perhaps most astonishing about the documentary is the archival footage of film from the Middle East of a century ago, stunningly preserved, much of it having been locked away and discarded for decades. Tilda Swinton narrates flawlessly while actors in extremely realistic period dress (this must be mentioned) are filmed in black and white as Bell’s family and colleagues, all to the mournful but not maudlin sound of Paul Centelon’s score.

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