Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl (director)
21 April 2017 (released)
This isn’t really a straightforward documentary but more of a dramatic reading of letters that Gertrude Bell (Tilda Swinton) had written throughout her life cut between interview style performances by people of note in the letters and stock footage of Bell. It could almost be something you might see being shown in a school to get children more interested in the socio-political struggle and climate of the Middle East at the time and the origins of the conflict which at first might not sound appealing to the average viewer.
The directors, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum, clearly spent a long time in creating a working narrative just by using Bell’s letters and not a lot more. Swinton’s performance, as the voice of Bell, was a great choice and she is utterly believable delivering just the right amount of emotion. The film offers us small staged interviews such as a tale of an archaeological dig where she met Lawrence of Arabia told from his perspective. This is where the film becomes a drama-documentary rather than a straight documentary as it’s all staged, based on nothing but the letters and these recreations really serve their purpose in moving the story on to the next chapter.
While the letters are being read you get to see stock footage played in the background so you can get an idea of the situation in Baghdad and with this I was able to really see a part of the world I didn’t really previously understand.
On reflection of this film I do wonder if this needed to be a film and would the subject matter have been better served if it had been developed as a week by week Radio 4 series. That being said I went into this film knowing very little about Gertrude Bell but left wondering, with all she had done how that was possible.