Third Cinema revisited

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Letters from Baghdad, Britain, USA, France.

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2017

This film is presented as a documentary about Gertrude Bell, an outstanding and fascinating woman whose life and career ran from the late C19th through till the mid-1920s. She was a traveller, writer, mountaineer, archaeologist, multi-linguist and a skilled and astute ‘Arabist’. The most famous aspect of her life was her involvement in the British political and military activities in the Middle East during and following World War 1. She was an important and influential female member of the British political elite in this region. More notable, she is one of the few British officials whose reputation amongst Arab was at least partly positive.

The film presents a biography of Bell but the prime focus are her activities in the Middle East and in particular in Iraq which emerged after World War I as a British ‘protectorate’ and then as an ‘independent’ kingdom under British tutelage. At various points in this narrative Bell appears as a traveller and student across Arabia; as an archaeologist; as a spy and political adviser in wartime; as a political adviser in post-war construction; and [seemingly] as an adviser and mediator and official in the newly formed Iraq kingdom. It is worth remembering that she came from an upper class family and that she received an upper class education, gaining a First in History at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. What is notable about her is that, whilst she shared many of the colonial values of the time in British politics, she genuinely believed in some form of self-government for Arabs.  In her activities in Arabia she supported the interests of the Hashemite royal family. And she was sceptical of the Sykes-Picot plan and of the Balfour Declaration.

The film, which runs for 95 minutes, treats some aspects of this briefly but dwells on her activities in the Middle East and in particular the lands of Iraq. It seems that the filmmakers

“[They] collected some 1,200 archive film clips and several thousand still photographs, many taken by Bell herself. Much of the material came from the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University. They collected together Bell’s letters and diary entries and also the statements made by many of the distinguished figures who knew her. In an interview with Anne-Katrin Titze, Sabine Krayenbühl says that the aim was to imagine that these statements were made for a documentary just two or three years after Bell’s death in 1926. The ‘witnesses’ are played by actors in appropriate period costumes who read out the statements as if they were appearing in a modern-style documentary.”

[Review by Roy Stafford].

The machinations of the British, with the French, in the region are clearly explained. There is also a brief reference to the activities of US oil companies. The war on the Iraqi people by the British in the 1920s is presented. However, the political context of the installation of a Hashemite ruler is not fully detailed and the transition to an independent kingdom seemed somewhat confused: I was not clear if Bell’s archaeological activities were presented as during the British protectorate or later under in the Hashemite Kingdom.. The regional collaboration between the British and the French, i.e. Sykes/Picot, really needs a fuller treatment. And the question of the Balfour declaration and the British connivance of Zionist colonisation Palestine is wholly absent; as are the earlier Armenian massacres witnessed by Bell.

An opening title informs us that the film is ‘based’ [I think that is the term] on primary sources. It is true that the film is composed almost completely of archival material, written documents, including personal items such a letters and diaries; official in terms of memorandum, a white paper written by Bell; and secret documents such as security files. To this are added archival photographs and film. But these sources are not presented in the primary form. The written documents are presented to us with professional actors in monochrome shots speaking the text, in some cases in the original Arabic or other language with English sub-titles. The photographs are presented in a variety of forms. Some are placed within the frame in their original ratio, in some cases in a photographic frame. Some are reframed for the widescreen image. And in some cases the images are from a rostrum shot, focusing in on a particular character, object or text. The film comes off worse of all, though most of the clips retain either their black and white, tinted or toned, or colour form. However, nearly all of the film footage is reframed to the widescreen; here the television ratio of 1.78:1. In a number of cases there is added sound to what was originally ‘silent’ footage. There are only three clips presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Two of these feature title cards, presumably the rationale. And one fictional clip illustrating a film presentation by Bell to Iraq women. It is a Mary Pickford extract, which seems unlikely.

Much of the material is indexical in the sense of

“the phenomenon of a sign pointing to some object in the context in which it occurs.”

The written texts relate to the time, place and character that is featured. The majority of the photographs also appear to relate to the time, place and characters featured. However the film extracts frequently are from a different time and place and are of characters separate from those featured in the film, that is they are not indexical: at least two [apart from the |Pickford clip] are from fictional features.

I am always concerned when archive film is presented in some changed form. Commonly we get film shot in 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ‘reframed’ to 1.85:1 or even [in extreme examples] to 2.35:1. This ignores the point-of view of the original filmmakers. This seems to assume that the cameraman and/or director just set up the camera and filmed. This may have occurred in some cases but mostly it seems clear that these filmmakers chose their position, distance and angle [as well as the various lenses and accessories] deliberately. Moreover, this expresses not just their look but their material interest, something that in this film is clear from the texts presented. My concern is not just over the filmmaker who perpetrate this, often filmmakers with an ‘auteurial” stance which should be extended to the filmmakers they are treating. I also have concerns about the archives who co-operate in this. The end credits for this film include the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum. Both institutions should be guardians of this historical resources but they appear happy to allow other media [and this seems to be mainly for the benefit of television] to play fast and loose in the archives.

What seems to determine this representation of Bell, the times and, importantly, struggles against colonialism, are the points-of-view and material interests of the western archivists and historians and the western audiences for whom the film is primarily produced. A treatment of Gertrude Bell on film feels timely. However, the biography and contextualisation remain mainly within the value system under which Bell operated. For all her empathy and sympathy for Arab peoples her actions worked within the colonial limits of British imperial policy. At one point the film registers her reservations about an Iraqi border that she worked on: but the border was placed and remains part of the colonial and problematic legacy in the region. Added to this is what I find a rather suspect approach to the historical artefacts with which her story is told. One of the sources for documentaries on the history of Arabia has been the Al Jazeera Television network. Whilst they do not do it consistently, in many of their films/programmes the archive footage is presented as it was filmed and screened in the period. This is not just a technical question about the form of this material. It is, as FIAF recommends with archive film, that it should be presented in the form in which it was filmed and shown in its original time.

This film biopic is well made and is a fascinating address on the subject. However, it is produced by the industries of the states that exploited and oppressed the territories and peoples that Bell clearly cared about. And I think the filmmakers have failed to critically reflect on assumptions in such industries about how characters, places, times and actions should be filmed.

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