Gertrude Lowthian Bell, sometimes called the "female" Lawrence of Arabia was a British adventurer, archaeologist and political powerhouse, who helped shape the modern Middle East after World War I. Voiced and executive produced by Tilda Swinton, the film chronicles Bell's journey into the uncharted Arabian desert and all-male halls of colonial power with never-seen-before archival footage of the region shot a century ago. The film takes us into a past that is eerily current.
... and it is the only reason I knock even one star off, because for what it is, this is a perfect documentary.
Based on the title, I assumed it was going to be about something relatively recent, such as letters from soldiers in Iraq over the last two decades. To my surprise it was a more distant history lesson going back over 100 years.
It was presented ala Ken Burns style with old photos of the period accompanied by voice actors reading the words of various historical figures, centering on the journal of a young, affluent, well educated, and quite atypically adventurous, late Victorian era British lass, Gertrude Bell, who began traveling in the middle east at a young age, learned Arabic, fell in-love with the various Arab cultures, and encountered a host of notable personages including T.E. Lawrence himself. Evidently her forward thinking attitude and influence endeared her to many of the local tribes while stirring up distrust in the old Ottoman Empire, who considered her a British spy.
Because of her accumulated vast Middle East knowledge, as WW1 approached, she (not unlike T.E.) was eventually put to work in the British Foreign Affairs Office, but, because she was a woman, most of the places to which she was assigned undervalued her and didn't quite know how to best employ her talents. She lost the love of her life during the failed effort at Gallipoli in 1915. His loss Left her devoted to the one thing that they had shared and mutually loved, the Middle East. Like Lawrence, she was an early advocate for an independent Arab State, and both during and after WW1, her empathetic understanding of the various ethnic and religious cultures including Arab and Jewish populations made her a trusted mediator among many of the indigenous people and a growing necessity for the British Empire.
The British had realized early on that transitioning from coal to oil would be essential to fuel their merchant fleets and the navy providing security for their massive empire, and that oil was plentiful in the middle east. So, when the allied powers gained post war control in the region, they promptly began carving up the area to best suit their purposes. The European goal was the establishment of loyal vassal kingdoms who would allow perpetual access to their most highly valued and as yet under exploited commodity, oil. Along with creating Saudi Arabia and a host of smaller Arab states, they also gave birth to Iraq. So Ms. Bell, with the best of intentions, was still used by all parties involved. Thus, in this historical retrospective, she can rightfully be called an unintentional founder of the modern Middle East, with all of its problems.
Highly recommended as a documentary on a key piece of Mideast history that is not known very well.
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