Freeview film of the day Monday 18 September: Letters from Baghdad

Tilda Swinton narrates the story of Oxford-educated explorer Gertrude Bell: explorer, cartographer and political attache

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Letters from Baghdad  ★★★★ 
Premiere 9.00-10.30pm BBC4

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As history is invariably written by male victors, the “female Lawrence of Arabia” has largely been airbrushed out of the accounts of Britain’s attempts to create an Arab state in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Great War. First-time directors Sabin Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum spent years amassing archive footage in a bid to do justice to the legacy of Gertrude Bell, the Oxford-educated explorer, cartographer, archaeologist and political attache whose correspondence is thoughtfully read by Tilda Swinton in this intriguing overview of the origins of Iraq. With a fine cast speaking to camera in the guise of Bell’s contemporaries, the documentary has the scholastic rigour to avoid hagiography. Indeed, it’s as frank about Bell’s snobbery and vanity as it is about the passionate affairs that dominate Werner Herzog’s ill-starred biopic Queen of the Desert (2015). But this also suggests how differently things might have turned out in this tinderbox region had British Commissioner Arnold Wilson not rejected Bell’s informed proposals for the governing of King Faisal I’s ethnically and spiritually diverse (and combustible) realm. David Parkinson


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