The explorer, author, photographer, diplomat and stateswoman Gertrude Bell received a wellintentioned but starchy biopic earlier this year, with Nicole Kidman doing her regal best to infuse a melodramatic misfire with dignity and deeper meaning.
Luckily, the documentary “Letters From Baghdad” has arrived to satisfy the audience’s hunger for details about Bell’s extraordinary life and career, which took her from the rarefied environs of aristocratic England to the Middle East (“my second native country!”), where in the early 20th century she conducted invaluable research of tribal culture and customs and where, after World War I, she played a pivotal role in creating a country called Iraq.
The folly of that colonial exploit, not to mention its grievous present-day implications, runs like a cruelly ironic subtext throughout “Letters From Baghdad,” which has been constructed solely from Bell’s correspondence during her active period, as well as from secret communiques and other primary sources. Tilda Swinton — also an executive producer on this project — reads Bell’s words while nitrate images of historical Persia, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula crack and sparkle with astonishingly rich period detail. Filmmakers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl take gratifying care marrying those images with a sound design that subtly brings them into an extra dimension. They make particularly compelling use of the photos Bell took with her camera, turning what might have been a dry tutorial into a mesmerizingly immersive plunge into a time, place and cultural zeitgeist that feel simultaneously far away and of the moment.
Less successful are the fake vintage talking-head “interviews” in which actors portray such Bell contemporaries as T.E. Lawrence, Sir Percy Cox, Sir Arnold “A.T.” Wilson and Frank Balfour, whose eponymous declaration in 1917 helped pave the way for a Jewish state in Palestine.
Although that particular instance of statecraft isn’t addressed in “Letters From Baghdad,” the film pays testament to the fact that, had more political leaders heeded Bell’s advice regarding Arab autonomy, cultural sensitivities and the dangers of sectarianism, perhaps the region would look very different today. (Although Cox was a supporter, she was marginalized by his successor in the British Mideast office; her final days were spent amassing objects for the Iraq Museum.)
Bell emerges as a fascinatingly contradictory figure: romantic and headstrong, then — after two tragic love affairs — increasingly tetchy and “difficult.” Anyone in search of context for today’s headlines, whether about the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War or the strategic break between several Arab states and Qatar, will be enriched by “Letters From Baghdad.” It provides a sturdy, often exhilarating bridge between the present and a past that not only isn’t distant, but isn’t even really past.
Unrated. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and the Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains nothing objectionable. In English and Arabic, with subtitles. 95 minutes.
There will be Q&As with filmmakers Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum at the Angelika Pop-Up after the 7 p.m. show Saturday and the 3 and 5 p.m. shows Sunday.