Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad isn’t a straightforward documentary about Gertrude Bell, who helped to draw the borders of modern Iraq and later founded its museum, nor about Arabia in the time of Lawrence. Rather, as the opening titles inform us, the narration is culled entirely from letters, secret communiques, and other primary sources. (And how wonderful is it when the words “primary source” come up in a documentary?) Actors portraying the talking heads of the long-dead players — including Eric Loscheider as T. E. Lawrence and Robert Ian Mackenzie as Winston Churchill, who’s also currently played by Brian Cox elsewhere — while executive producer Tilda Swinton also provides Gertrude’s voice, though she never appears on screen.
As is increasingly the case with the subgenre of documentaries built around the actual words of the subjects, Letters from Baghdad would also work well as a radio documentary, since the images onscreen are often only tangentially related to the voiceover. The picture, of course, only scratches the surface of her words or her story, but because archivists are the best, Bell’s voluminous writings are all available online. Indeed, Letters From Baghdad ends with Lawrence saying, “By the way, do read her letters — they are splendid.” Lawrence wasn’t always right, but he sure wasn’t wrong about that.
Letters From Baghdad
Opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema.