• April 06, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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The documentary “Letters from Baghdad” had its first screening in the country Monday, drawing loud applause from an audience stocked with academics, diplomats and journalists. 

The film tells the story of Gertrude Bell, the British writer, explorer, spy and political officer who helped shape post-Ottoman Iraq. 

With a script taken entirely from Bell’s letters and official documents, read by British actress Tilda Swinton, the 2016 documentary shows hitherto unseen footage of Iraq as it was being pulled together into a new state. 

It also throws some light on Iraq’s current challenges as it emerges from a war with militants from Daesh (ISIS) and seeks to reconcile its Shiite majority with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities. The theater was hushed throughout the screening, with little or no evidence of mobile phone texting –a sign of an absorbed audience. 

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

“Letters from Baghdad” was selected for the BFI London Film Festival in 2016 and won the audience award at the Beirut International Film Festival that same year. 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. 

The film explains the key decisions made by Bell as a political officer in the British colonial administration ruling Iraq after World War One. Among these were the decision to include Sunni-majority Mosul and Kurdish areas in the north within the Iraqi state the British were pulling together, and choosing Sunni Muslim Faisal bin Hussein from the Hijazi Hashemite dynasty as king. 

Bell drew up Iraq’s borders based on her knowledge of the local populations she encountered as an explorer, when the Arabian Peninsula and today’s Iraq were still under Ottoman administration. One photo shows Bell with T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” and Winston Churchill near Egypt’s Giza Pyramids. 

The film also shows scenes of daily life in Baghdad, including families and personalities from its thriving Jewish community. “Gertrude Bell was a champion of diversity,” said the film’s co-director Zeva Oelbaum. “She loved the different culture she came upon. Iraq during her time was very diverse and Baghdad was a very vibrant city. We feel this is a message that is very important today.” 

Bell, who died in 1926 and was buried in the city, also founded the Museum of Baghdad to showcase and preserve Iraq’s Sumerian and Babylonian heritage. The museum was plundered during the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, which ousted Saddam Hussein and paved the way for much greater Shiite influence in Iraq’s government. 

After the projection at the National Theater in Baghdad, Mustafa Salim, an Iraqi journalist with the Washington Post in Baghdad, gave the documentary a thumbs up, though he was disappointed that so much of the documentary focused on Bell’s private life. “It’s a wonderful movie,” he said, “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.” 

Baghdad has changed drastically since Bell’s time, as concrete buildings and roads replaced most of its traditional sand brick houses and typical “shanashil” wooden verandas. “We drove through the streets,” Krayenbuehl said. “We were looking at some of the older parts [of town], seeing some of these old houses are falling apart. I think watching this movie gives an enthusiasm to want to restore and ... protect.” 

by Maher Chmaytelli


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