Letters from Baghdad
★★★ ½
Chelsea Theatre, Chapel Hill

Describable only as an experimental documentary, Letters from Baghdad tells the story of Gertrude Bell, the British government official, explorer, and occasional spy who helped draw the borders of modern-day Iraq in the years after the first world war. Bell is sometimes called the female Lawrence of Arabia, although this film argues she was much better at her job than T.E. Lawrence ever was.

Bell was born into a wealthy British family, and her devotion to exotic travel made her useful to the officers of imperial Britain in the Middle East. Unlike the men tasked with nation-building after the war, Bell was fluent in Arabic and actually knew quite a bit about the tangled history of Mesopotamia. After traveling in the region extensively, she had earned the trust of many local leaders. She eventually became one of the very few women to wield significant influence in the colonial government of the time.

Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, Letters from Baghdad takes a radically experimental approach to the standard historical-documentary form. The film is presented as if it were made just after Bell’s death in 1926, with actors playing her family and friends, remembering her in talking-head interview segments mixed with archival footage. The interview bits are filmed in black and white, the images digitally distressed to match the appearance of the historical newsreel segments.

It’s a bold choice, but not a particularly effective one. The visual beat-matching is too conspicuous and self-conscious, disrupting the narrative and shifting attention to the makeup and costumes. The performers do a very good job, but you’re constantly aware that they’re performers doing a very good job. That archival footage, though? Oh, my. Letters from Baghdad is packed with never-before-seen historical film segments of Middle East locales unearthed from government vaults. It’s a thrill to see the streets of Damascus circa 191, desert-dust twisters outside Cairo, and steamers and sail barges in the harbors of Constantinople.

The film’s other great pleasure is listening the words and descriptions of Bell, who was a gifted writer and insightful political thinker. The voiceover readings by Tilda Swinton come directly from primary sources, mostly the thousands of letters Bell wrote during her travels. Some of the passages are almost impossibly prescient, as when Bell writes of Britain’s nation-building ambitions:

“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. Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure, in the end, whether you’ll be there to take theirs?”

Letters from Baghdad really is a unique endeavor. It’s not entirely successful: aside from the structural choices, it’s a bit didactic, and its modern political sensibility feels forced. But I’ve never seen anything like it, and I learned a lot. It’s screening locally only at the Chelsea, one of the few remaining area arthouses willing to take a chance on a curveball like this.