I have a friend — another movie critic — who refuses to watch documentary films. He can’t imagine how a story emerging from the actual can be as compelling as a narrative born in fiction.

He misses a lot.

When I think of my favorite hours at the movies, I savor the insight and inspiration that documentary films can offer. And I appreciate all I have learned from filmmakers who find creative ways to convey the lives of real people.

The new film Letters from Baghdad reminds me why I love documentaries. This stirring account of the life of Gertrude Bell — a significant contributor to the land we know today as Iraq — incorporates actual words she wrote with photographs she took to recreate a time when the differences between people prompted governments to redraw maps to promote unity.

Bell’s life begins with a privileged childhood in the English countryside highlighted by a close relationship with a caring father. From an early age, Gertrude shows signs of a determined adventurer wanting to reach beyond the conventions of the early 1900s to wander the world. Her ambitions take her to the lands we call the Middle East to explore the vast reaches of the Ottoman Empire. As she discovers the balance of power in the area she offers insight valuable to British efforts during World War I. After the war, Bell brings her expertise to discussions of how to redraw the boundaries on the map to draw the new Iraq. And, as the new nation tries to find its footing, she builds a museum to celebrate its origins.

Such a story could be a dry history lesson. But directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl inject such creativity in their telling that we’re captivated with the determination, compassion and heart of this woman. The filmmakers wisely cast Tilda Swinton to read excerpts from Bell’s letters to the people who matter in her life, especially her father. This creates an authentic sense of time and place as Bell vividly describes what she sees, feels and questions. The approach lets us see into the lady’s soul as she examines how people are included or dismissed, wanted or discarded. Swinton’s pitch-perfect interpretations help us absorb the meaning Bell sees in her work, and its impact on a less than perfect world.

Enhancing these readings are the on-camera recreations from actors reading words from people Bell encounters in her life, from friends and relatives to professional connections, including T.E. Lawrence, the British explorer whose life was told in Lawrence of Arabia. These commentaries paint a picture of the world in which Bell works and the situations she must address. By including these observations in such a creative way, Oelbaum and Krayenbuhl give the film a feel of fictional film that might even please my friend, the documentary skeptic.

Ultimately, Bell reminds us that lines on a map cannot force people to get along, and that governments from distant lands should take time to understand before they begin to conquer. Her work celebrates the unique characteristics that groups people acquire time. And that world leaders, as they try to impose their views, must respect the fragility of balance in our world.

“Film Nutritional Value”: Letters from Baghdad

  • Content: High. With content as relevant as today’s headlines, Letters from Baghdad explores the origins of a region still searching for solid ground.
  • Entertainment: High. Despite the details in this history lesson, the creative filmmaking of Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl makes this an entertaining journey to a land far away.
  • Message: High. With its layered examination of how cultural sensitivities develop between people, the film teaches us how local concerns can influence global connections.
  • Relevance: High. At a time when balance in the world remains so fragile, the film’s insights are timely and essential.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your children, talk about how its lessons impact what we see in the world today.

(Letters from Baghdad runs 96 minutes. Four Popcorn Buckets. It is showing in theaters in Connecticut and New York City.)

Lawrence of Arabia: Another view of forming the Middle East

by Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

Some heroes are almost too complex to absorb.

And, as the documentary Letters from Baghdad reveals, some heroes make contributions that history can ignore.

Of the individuals who impacted the formation of what we now consider the Middle East, Gertrude Bell — the subject of Letters from Baghdad — is rarely remembered while her colleague, T.E. Lawrence, is considered a hero of the moment. How these two strong individuals may have connected would, actually, make quite a movie. Until then, we must savor the new documentary as well as this classic from director David Lean. Because time can confuse what people actually achieve. Only history can separate the reality from the myth.

In 1962, director Lean, who proved himself a master creator of the film epic with The Bridge on the River Kwai, gave himself an ultimate challenge, to try to make film sense of T.E. Lawrence, a most controversial man at the center of some of the most meaningful moments in the history of what we now call the Middle East. In perhaps the most significant epic ever created on screen, Lean puts us in the middle of a fascinating part of the world at its most defining time, as the British were losing their hold on the future of the land and the destiny of its people. And he teaches us, more than he could ever have imagined, the fundamentals that continue to define the conflicts in this part of the world.

Lean uses the widescreen camera to explore this most complex historical figure who some believe to be a hero, others dismiss as a nuisance, and all recognize as a significant presence in what we now think of as the Middle East in the early 1900s. The ambiguity of the man makes the visit to his world that much more fascinating. Rarely do we get such an opportunity to get inside how such a complex man thinks. The film traces his years as an intelligence office in Cairo, his pursuits to help destroy the power of the Ottoman Empire, all the while raising questions about the man’s character and fundamental interests.

Lawrence of Arabia shows us a great deal about the world order in the early part of the 20th century. We see the insides of the great British military machine, in its last days as a world superpower, as well as the traditional beliefs of various Arab tribes that continue to define much of the conflict in our world today. In this way, Lawrence is timeless; the issues it explores, and the observations it makes, are relevant today. Watching this film will help you understand why so much of this part of the world remains in conflict.

This is as much a story of a man on screen and the filmmaker behind the screen. No one making movies today could ever achieve what Lean achieves unless they resorted to the computer. But Lean did it the old-fashioned way. When we see the characters in the middle of the desert, we know Lean was there with his crew, transporting the water to keep the people and animals alive, always striving for authenticity in every shot he put on the screen. He passion for truth brings greater clarity to a most confusing hero.

The film does not try to answer the many questions as it frames the character and the controversy. Yes, it stages the debate on a grand scale that could never be duplicated on film again. And, yes, it poses questions that Letters from Baghdad can help answer. Check out both films.