Confessions of a Latecomer: Michael Almereyda on Letters from Baghdad

The director of two 2017 films, Escapes and Marjorie Prime, with his take on a recent favorite (that he missed the first 10 minutes of).

“We thought we were exploring a single life, and are brought to see that no life can be single, that anyone’s solitude is dense with the imagined solitude of others.”
– Geoffrey O’Brien, on Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights

I slipped into the theater about 10 minutes after the movie began – what happened to the coming attractions? – and was unsettled to see a woman identified as Gertrude Bell’s half-sister holding forth in a candid interview. Black-and-white footage, a medium close-up, neutral background. The sound was crisp and the woman looked remarkably fresh for someone recounting events that happened over a hundred years ago. It soon became apparent that the filmmakers have taken a page from Woody Allen’s book and, you could say, inverted it. Whereas Allen, in Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, employed real people to provide commentary about fictional characters, co-directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have dressed up actors to impersonate and comment on real historical figures, peppering exposition with subjective asides. I imagine someone else has served up a sober documentary, built from fine-grained research and rich archival footage, with fictional interviews interlaced throughout, but I don’t know who or when. Peter Watkins has brilliantly, brazenly given us period films (Munch, La Commune) wherein players in the drama anachronistically submit to man-on-the-street interviews – actors in convincingly lived-in costumes talking into hand mics with a contemporary tone of aggrieved frankness, as if testifying for the Nightly News; but Letters from Baghdad offers something distinctly different and, in a quiet way, equally daring.

The film is both a character study and a chronicle, tracing the trajectory of Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926), an Englishwoman who found herself – her voice, her vocation, her reason to exist – through travel in the Middle East at a time when an independent European woman in that part of the world was an absolute anomaly. Bell’s letters, read with wonderful chromatic shading by Tilda Swinton, give the film its chief structure and dramatic thread, detailing her exploits as a tourist/scholar and – when she mastered Persian, Arabic and camel-riding – as an amazingly intrepid writer, explorer, archeologist, photographer, mapmaker and government intermediary given a hand in shaping what became Iraq.

Bell’s letters shine with intelligence and early idealism, and register a darkening strain as politics become more central in her life, with a parallel undertow, over the years, as she continues to rely on money from her father (a progressive ironworks magnate) and returns to England for only brief intervals. Restless, willful, and disappointed in love, Bell finds a second home in the desert, and the wealth of extraordinary archival footage conveys her enchantment. We see glistening black-and-white images of village streets and bazaars, anonymous figures and crowds, monuments and ruins that were ruined long before cameras existed. Some shots are so vivid, I’d be content to watch them on a loop. (Children playing with balloons. A discharged cannon creating a wall-sized shockwave of displaced sand.) The filmmakers avoid reductive illustration, and the sound design is eerily detailed, somehow complementing the effect of the artificial interviews. You know you aren’t hearing real footsteps, birds, engines or crowd murmurings, but these sounds are specific and layered, enforcing the sense of history as an echo chamber, a mix of actuality and speculation, memory and myth.

The presence and voices of a dozen earnest actors fill out the tale, revealing how Bell’s friends and colleagues, while largely sympathetic and admiring, took note of her capacity for arrogance, intransigence and depression. (She died from an overdose of sleeping pills, aged 58.) The actors are more than decent, if a bit starchy, maintaining the nominal illusion that they inhabit another era, attired in unshowy period costumes and upholding a certain primness and class consciousness. Arab characters, nicely enough, speak in subtitled Arabic. I’ve since learned (as any punctual theater-goer would know) that the dialogue is derived from historical accounts, precisely quoted – letters, diaries, communiqués. Nothing is made up, but the record becomes intimate, personalized. The approach feels liberating, allowing a more fluid stream of information, mixing opinion, hearsay and hard facts – a dense and fascinating account.

All the same, dim non-experts like myself will emerge from this movie with only a shadowy sense of how competing tribal kingdoms and nation states maneuvered their way out of the dismantled Ottoman Empire, attempting self-sovereignty while contending with paternalistic pressures from the British. Bell, we are to understand, was on the side of the natives but (supplementary reading reveals) can also be considered part of the historical problem – an accursed Orientalist, posthumously earning the condemnation of Edward Said.

Glenn Kenny, an admirable critic, wrote a three-paragraph dismissal of this film in the New York Times. (Three short paragraphs.) He scorns the interview conceit but, arguing for a fuller context for Bell’s adventures, bracingly suggests (to this susceptible viewer) how the technique might have allowed the filmmakers to be even more daring. What if these interviews, so self-consciously out of time, could convey thoughts and connections beyond the frame of the characters’ lives? What if the choral voices could grapple more directly with Professor Said’s complaints? What if T. E. Lawrence, interviewed in the film, could reach through time and pick a fight with Said or, for that matter, with John Ashcroft? All the same, Letters from Baghdad doesn’t need to over-extend itself for the sake of relevance. At its conclusion, the film lets us know that Bell’s most solid achievement – building the Iraq Museum and curating its collection – met with a ruinous fate, the museum’s treasures ransacked in the wake of the 2003 American invasion. Here, as throughout this movie, we’re directed to recognize that history, like a frail but infinite excavation site, is stratified and incomplete, a sequence of labyrinthine possibilities, high hopes and hard luck intersecting with a fate that is always coming at us, unforeseeably, over the far horizon.

Michael Almereyda’s films encompass fiction and documentary, features and shorts. Titles include Nadja (1994), Hamlet (2000), William Eggleston in the Real World (2005) and Experimenter (2015). Almereyda’s latest documentary, Escapes, is currently in theaters, released by Grasshopper Film. Marjorie Prime, awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance in January, will open in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Fe on August 18th, distributed by FilmRise.