Gertrude Bell: Tilda Swinton brings the 'Queen of Iraq' back to life

Gertrude Bell in 1921. Courtesy Letters from Baghdad/Gertrude Bell Archive

Gertrude Bell in 1921. Courtesy Letters from Baghdad/Gertrude Bell Archive

Why do we know so much about Lawrence of Arabia, and still so little about Gertrude Bell – his contemporary in the Arab world, herself a diplomat and adventurer, and instrumental in the creation of the modern nation of Iraq?

Perhaps the answer is still David Lean’s magnificent 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. Werner Herzog’s 2015 biopic Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman, still hasn’t made Gertrude a celebrity. Yet there she is, photographed by history, next to Churchill and T.E Lawrence, astride camels and planning the partition of the Arab world post-world War One. The era directly handed us the problems of the modern Middle East – although Gertrude herself was nearly a century ahead of her time in her belief for self-determination for the Arab peoples.

Now however, Gertrude Bell is being done justice by a documentary by two filmmakers, Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, in their film Letters from Baghdad. With  Tilda Swinton as the voice of Gertrude Bell, the directors have painstakingly curated some 1600 letters Bell wrote during her lifetime, and set them to black and white photographic and film footage of the time, from her birth in 1868 to her death in Iraq in 1926.

“One of our missions with this film is to really bring her back,” agrees Sabine. “ She was T.E Lawrence’s equal if not more influential, ultimately. She founded Iraq’s first National Museum – the one that was damaged so badly in the American invasion of 2003 – but she deserves to be remembered for so much more.”

 "We wanted Tilda to read Gertrude’s letters aloud, and it’s clear they are letters, but she really does inhabit Gertrude’s thoughts, and she also has a resemblance to her.  Tilda was actually cast as Gertrude Bell a decade ago in a film which was to be written by Anthony Minghella, but because of his death it didn’t happen. So when we approached Tilda she was very enthusiastic." Zeva Oelbaum on Tilda Swinton

Gertrude Bell was born into a powerful industrial family at a time when Britain was the greatest power in the world. She took a first at Oxford, and chance took her to the Middle East. She fell in love with its places and people, learned Arabic, and would never really leave it. Employed basically as a spy by the British during the First World War, after the end of the Ottoman Empire she helped preside over its partition, and drew up the lines for the modern state of Iraq. Effectively, she became the new nation state’s King’s right hand woman , "the uncrowned Queen of Iraq" some said – although being sidelined later into the role of a museum curator would lead to depression, and probably, her early death at the age of 57.

It took the two directors five years to research and make the film, editing Bell’s letters – many of them to her large and loving family in England. Even more problematic was their idea of finding footage that would go alongside the voiceover.

“We weren’t sure we would find archival material from the time period,” says Sabine, “and then an archive we were in touch with sent this wonderful piece of footage back fro Baghdad in the 1920s, and since that was rather an obscure archive, we suddenly felt a lot more confident.

“Actually, it was the dawn of cinema, and if you could afford a camera, a lot of affluent people were out there shooting all kinds of street scenes, anything that moved – just like us with our smartphones – because it was such a novelty. So we created a script based on her letters and looked for footage that matched. Altogether we used five hundred separate cinema clips.”

There is no doubt, Zeva agrees, that Tilda Swinton’s agreement “to inhabit the voice of Gertude Bell” pushed the project forward. Swinton also produced the film.

“She would always have been our first choice. We wanted Tilda to read Gertrude’s letters aloud, and it’s clear they are letters, but she really does inhabit Gertrude’s thoughts, and she also has a resemblance to her.  Tilda was actually cast as Gertrude Bell a decade ago in a film which was to be written by Anthony Minghella, but because of his death it didn’t happen. So when we approached Tilda she was very enthusiastic, and she was wonderful to work with, very collaborative and very smart.”

Gertrude Bell travelling in 1900

Gertrude Bell travelling in 1900

“In many different ways over the course of her life, loneliness played a big part, and she could distract herself from that by being busy and with her job but at the end of her life she couldn’t be distracted from the sadness of her own mind.” Zeva Oelbaum on Gertrude Bell.

Bell’s instrumental role in Iraq is the focus of Letters from Baghdad – but it does touch upon the disappointments that shaped her. An engagement that ended abruptly because of her fiance’s poverty, followed by his early death, and an affair with a married officer – Gertrude heard about his death in action at a dinner party – all helped make her, as time went by, lonely and unhappy. Bell died as the result of an overdose of sleeping pills when at her lowest ebb, but no one can be sure if it was intentional or not . No suicide note was left.

“Yes – I do feel like she was someone who was very motivated to find a soul mate, she was anxious to connect, she had very close relationships with women and men, “ explains Zeva. “ It was hard on her, because in Iraq people rotated through it so she would make friends and then they would go home. She was very lonely and she would have loved to find her mate in life. Her family would have helped a great deal, but the trip to England was so arduous, she made it less and less. If travel had been easier or even if phone calls had been possible, she would undoubtedly have felt more connected.

“In many different ways over the course of her life, loneliness played a big part, and she could distract herself from that by being busy and with her job but at the end of her life she couldn’t be distracted from the sadness of her own mind.”

There are many things about a woman who died nearly a century ago that feel timely – including her comment in a letter during the partition of the Middle East, “ that we have rushed into this business without a clear sense of what we are doing.”

What has happened in Iraq subsequently would have broken Gertrude Bell’s heart, and the filmmakers hope to pass on some of her attitude towards her adopted homeland to so many countries intent on closing in on themselves:

“One of the things we admire and think is so important about her is her love for other cultures,” says Zeva. “ She had an open mind and she engaged with interest and passion. If we could only pass that on of Gertrude, that would be something.”

Letters from Baghdad is in UK cinemas now

For more information on the film, go to http://lettersfrombaghdadthemovie.com