“Women’s colleges should be levelled to the ground!” a news commentator is heard saying close to the beginning of the film. It is 1888 and something as simple as a young woman travelling on her own by tube could be perceived as “an orgy of independence” according to Bell’s half sister. Yet, not only is she among a handful of women reading Modern History at Oxford University and the single one to achieve a first, but also, perhaps, the only one taking on exhaustive and at times life threatening mountain climbing in the Alps, followed by repeated travels in the Middle East and ending up providing services to the British Military Intelligence after World War I.
“She was a wonderful person, not very like a woman” confesses T.E. Lawrence about the pioneer diplomat, archaeologist and spy who also traveled to the Arabian desert extensively and played an important role in those tumultuous times in the history of the Middle East.
Combining archive footage, still photos, print material and reenactment of key political figures and personalities verbatim with an exquisite sound design, the film masterfully creates a stunning portrait of Gertrude Bell. Focusing primarily on extracts from her 1600 handwritten letters, memoirs and diaries the film tries to reconstruct the life of Gertrude Bell as recorded in her personal and official correspondence. From intimate and tender letters to her family members and her lovers, to sharp, dry, austere, sometimes abrupt notes to politicians and her peers, a wealth of emotions, thoughts and views is revealed.
Tilda Swindon’s narration is transcendental. Not only does she keep our interest switched on all the time as if we were the longing recipient of Gertrude Bell’s letters, but also she successfully revives the diplomat, the woman, the daughter, the friend, the intelligence officer in all her contradictions, flaws, imperfections and strengths. At the same time, the voice over in conjunction with the overwhelming visuals succeeds in skillfully reconstructing all the awe, appeal and fascination with the cosmopolitan Tehran, Istanbul and the myth of the “magical Middle East” of the 19th century.
“You will find in the East a great tolerance due to diversity” Gertrude was writing in 1900 having experienced it herself. Dressed in her best evening dresses even in the desert, Bell was known to refuse to swap her western clothes for local attire as she thought of it being dishonest and insincere towards the people she met. She was invited into their homes, met their extended families and tribes and won their trust. She would soon become known in the Arab world as Al-Khatun (The Lady) with an extensive knowledge of Middle Eastern demographics and inter-tribal relations. Her role was so prominent that she became an honorary head of the Jamil family.
The wealth of information and connections she had sourced however came with challenges. The Ottoman Empire was suspicious of her activity in the wider region and considered her to be a spy. In 1913 she was imprisoned for 11 days after found traveling alone in the desert without any entourage or protection and delivering messages between the tribes.
Her knowledge of the area and local politics became a valuable asset for political purposes and despite her male peers disapproving of a female diplomat’s work considering it, according to Bell “remarkable that a dog should be able to stand up on its hind legs at all” she produced a white paper on the government on Iraq in 1920. She also played a major role in drawing the borders of Iraq and appointing Faisal as the king after the Cairo conference, as she insisted on having an Arab head of state supported by British officials.
With an impressive team of acclaimed film professionals, including Tilda Swinton and Thelma Schoonmaker as executive producers, Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl’s film is a masterfully crafted testimony of the little known life, work and services of Gertrude Bell, at the backdrop of the controversial role of western interference in the Middle East. Using her own colorful and articulate letters to describe the anthropogeography of the wider region, the film is engaging and informative providing valuable insight in a turbulent period in the history of the Middle East and especially the formation of the state of Iraq.
Even though the film’s intention is to steer away from any colonially clad narrative and its very strength lies in the successful adoption of a humanistic approach, we can't help but search for more pieces of the puzzle. We do get an empowering glimpse of Gertrude Bell’s life, but her real story seems to hide in the pauses, the full stops, the missing information. Her conviction, motivations, true thoughts, emotions and wishes seem to be covered by a mysterious aura never being quite revealed in her correspondence, which is of course expected by anyone holding a sensitive government post. Furthermore, despite her pivotal role in British politics there is not enough information about her career choices and development. Whether that might have been a discrimination against her based on her sex or the cover of one of the most prominent and successful secret intelligence agents, like an English Mata Hari, remains to be discovered and proved. Until then it is definitely worth watching this gem of a film which is in UK cinemas from 21 April 2017.