Aspen Filmfest: ‘Letters from Baghdad’ |

Aspen Filmfest: ‘Letters from Baghdad’

"Letters from Baghdad" will screen Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. at Aspen Filmfest.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Letters from Baghdad’ at Aspen Filmfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale

When: Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2: 30 p.m. in Aspen; Sunday, Oct. 8, 5:30 p.m. in Carbondale

How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info: The screening will be followed by a filmmaker Q-and-A; also Wednesday FIlmfest hosts the panel discussion “Say Her Name” at 1 p.m.; “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” at 5:30 p.m. and “The Keeping Hours” at 8:15 p.m.;

With the voice of the inimitable Tilda Swinton, reams of archival material and thousands of personal letters, the documentary “Letters from Baghdad” paints a vivid picture of British spy, explorer and diplomat Gertrude Bell and her role in the formation of Iraq a century ago.

The film, which screens today at Aspen Filmfest, uses actors to portray her contemporaries and speak to the camera lines from their letters and cables. Using only voices from her time and the unusual narrative strategy of dressing actors for on-screen portrayals in a documentary, “Letters from Baghdad” immerses the viewer in Bell’s experiences.

“We wanted to be able to give the viewer an experience like a fly on the wall,” said Zeva Oelbaum, who co-directed the film with Sabin Krayenbuhl. “To see it though Gertrude Bell’s eyes and to get a sense of what was happening from her friends and family or people who were antagonistic toward her. We wanted to give as full a view as possible.”

Bell emerged from a restless childhood in Yorkshire to become a mountaineer who climbed the Matterhorn and made first ascents across Europe before setting off for the Middle East and immersing herself in its culture. Recruited by British colonial authorities, she worked alongside Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who surmised, “She was born too gifted, perhaps.” In a time when it was unheard of for a woman to wield such political influence, she often chafed under sexism and saw herself sidelined. She died suddenly in 1926, in what is believed to have been a suicide.

As Bell and the Brits invent Iraq, moments in the film resonate remarkably with the U.S. intervention there since 2003. At one point, in an assessment that would be echoed by Bush-era officials nearly a century later, Bell admits: “The real difficulty under which we labor here is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do in this country. We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.”

In recent generations, some historians have placed Bell among the Western villains who drew the lines in the sand to create Iraq and sowed the seeds of conflict there by installing a Sunni ruler for the majority Shia region. But “Letters From Baghdad” doesn’t engage in those debates and doesn’t judge Bell with the 20-20 hindsight of the 21st century. The filmmakers instead opt to let Bell and her contemporaries tell her story in the context of her time.

“It’s up to the viewers to draw parallels between 1917 and 2003,” Oelbaum said.

The filmmakers sought to animate the cultural complexity and vibrancy of Iraq in Bell’s time, in part, to give viewers a deeper understanding of a place they may think of only as a warzone.

“We’d love people to get a sense of the different groups in Iraq and have more empathy, understanding and knowledge,” Oelbaum said, “so that Iraq and the Middle East are not so opaque to the contemporary viewer.”

They make remarkable use of archival film footage and photographs for this vivid portrait.

“We view it the way that a painter views a palette — not just as a way to illustrate a time or a place but as something even more potentially evocative,” Oelbaum said.

The film is the second collaboration between the co-directors. While working on their 2009 doc “Ahead of Time,” both happened to be reading the Bell biography “The Desert Queen” (itself the basis of the widely panned Werner Herzog/Nicole Kidman drama). They decided to take on Bell’s story together and spent the next five years working full time on what would become “Letters from Baghdad.”

On that long filmmaking journey, they never tired of the fascinating Gertrude Bell.

“She was very contradictory,” Oelbaum said. “She could be arrogant but she felt vulnerable at different times, she was pragmatic but she was a romantic. She had so many different strands in her personality pulling at her.”

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