“Letters from Baghdad” shows Iraq through eyes of British female explorer and spy who shaped it

“Letters from Baghdad,” a documentary on Gertrude Bell, the British writer, explorer, spy and political officer who helped shape modern Iraq, had its first screening in the country on Monday, drawing loud applause from an audience of academics, diplomats, journalists and others.

The documentary shows hitherto unseen footage of Iraq as it was being pulled together into a new state a century ago, with a script taken entirely from Bell’s letters and official documents and read by British actress Tilda Swinton.

It also throws some light on Iraq’s current challenges as it emerges from a war with Islamic State militants and seeks to reconcile its Shi’ite majority with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Mustafa Salim, an Iraqi journalist at the Washington Post Bureau in Baghdad, gave the documentary a thumbs up after the showing at the National Theater in Baghdad.

 

“It’s a wonderful movie. But as an Iraqi viewer I would have liked it to go deeper into the political and historical aspects and the decisive influence she had in creating the Iraqi state,” he said, referring to the fact that parts of the documentary focused mainly on Bell’s private life.

The theater was hushed throughout the screening, with little or no texting on phones – a sign of a healthily absorbed audience in modern-day Iraq.

“The Iraqi viewer will be immersed in a visual experience of a common past and walk away with a sense of a culturally very diverse and vibrant Baghdad in the early 1900s,” Sabine Krayenbuehl, co-director of the film with Zeva Oelbaum, said before the screening.

Released in 2016, “Letters from Baghdad” was selected for the BFI London film festival and won the audience award at the Beirut International Film Festival.

Its screenings in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq have been organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and coincide with the 150th anniversary of Bell’s birth.

It explains the key decisions made by Bell as a political officer in the British colonial administration ruling Iraq after World War One.

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