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A documentary on Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire, who drew Iraq's borders before disappearing from history Read more

New York, NY Documentary
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Funded!

This project was successfully funded on April 13, 2014.

A documentary on Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire, who drew Iraq's borders before disappearing from history

New York, NY Documentary
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About this project

We are incredibly moved and humbled by the hundreds of people who joined our journey to bring Gertrude Bell’s important story into the world through our documentary film. Your amazing support helped us reach our initial goal in just two weeks, you propelled us forward to exceed our stretch goal in less than 9 days, and finally, you pushed us across the finish line with more than $90,000 successfully raised

This means that we can digitize the rare archival footage that we will use in the film, and additionally can begin paying licensing and usage fees. We couldn’t be more thrilled! 

Your generosity has been overwhelming as you’ve spread the word about our project through facebook, twitter, and blogging. 

We launched our campaign during Women’s History Month, and our theme has been to honor a woman, on our website or even in the on-screen credits. Letters from Baghdad is a film made by women filmmakers about an extraordinary woman, Gertrude Bell. We’re delighted that this resonated with so many of you.

Even if you are too late to be a part of our Kickstarter campaign, it’s not too late to become involved! Please go to our website to sign up for updates or donate to the film: www.LettersFromBaghdad.com.

Letters from Baghdad tells the dramatic and thought-provoking story of British-born Gertrude Bell, sometimes referred to as the female Lawrence of Arabia.  An adventurer, spy, archaeologist and powerful political force, she travelled into the uncharted Arabian desert and was recruited by British Military Intelligence to help reshape the Middle East after World War I. 

She drew the borders of Iraq, helped install its first king and established the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities which was infamously looted during the 2003 American invasion. She advocated for Iraqi self-rule and openly criticized colonial policy.

Yet, she was as ill-fated in love as she was gifted in politics, and her personal life was scarred with tragedy. The circumstances of her death by an overdose of sleeping pills at age 58 remain a mystery.

To get a glimpse of Gertrude Bell's story, click on the trailer below.

As female filmmakers, we have always been intrigued with the choices that trail-blazing women must make. What was it like to be a woman ahead of her time? What was it like to be a powerful woman, at a time when other women were powerless?

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was part proper Victorian and part modern woman. The precocious daughter of a wealthy industrialist family from northern England, her life was a series of “firsts”:

  • The first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford
  • The first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörner range in the Swiss Alps 
  • The first woman to do a solo journey into the uncharted Arabian desert (traveling by camel for 1500 miles across Central Arabia in 1914) 
  • The first female Intelligence officer employed by the British Military  
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

“Coming towards me was a party of camel riders. They were clearly all Arabs, except one who seemed to be a woman. It was Gertrude Bell. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a well-­dressed Englishwoman, looking spick and span in spite of her weeks of desert travel. I never forgot that first striking impression.”  Sir William Willcocks,1914

An advisor on Arab affairs during World War I, she was the only woman with a diplomatic role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman (invited by Winston Churchill) at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

In 1925, Bell drafted a new Law of Antiquities which safe-guarded Iraq's right to hold onto excavated artifacts. She championed education for Muslim girls, helping to establish one of the most progressive educational systems in the Middle East. 

Can you find Gertrude Bell in each of these photos?
Can you find Gertrude Bell in each of these photos?

“Do you know what I really want is a wife, to look after my household and my clothes. I quite understand why men out here marry anyone who turns up!”   Gertrude Bell, 1918 

              It's time to bring Gertrude Bell's story back into history!  

A recent biography on T.E. Lawrence doesn't mention her name, not even in a footnote.   General Gilbert Clayton, Lawrence's direct supervisor, credited  Bell's maps and tribal notes with the success of  the Arab revolt that made Lawrence famous.  In the 1996 Academy award winning film, The English Patient, one of the characters mentions the “Bell Maps”, but goes on to refer to Bell as a man.

Tribal Notes by Getrude Bell © the Royal Geographic Society
Tribal Notes by Getrude Bell © the Royal Geographic Society

"She disturbed the notion of the desert as a masculine space, a testing place for British masculinity.  It is all the more important that we put her back in that story and hold on to her central role in the making of the modern Middle East."  Priya Satia, Assoc. Professor of Modern British History, Stanford University. 

Letters From Baghdad follows Gertrude Bell’s unprecedented rise within the all-male ranks of British Military Intelligence to the inner sanctum of power and will shine a light on the tangled history of Iraq through a remarkable personal narrative. 

Our film could not be more timely, in light of the current events in Middle East and at the 100th anniversary of WWI, when the world is reexamining the impact of colonialism and ongoing Western policies and interventions in the region, especially in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. The decisions that Gertrude Bell and her colleagues in the colonial office made, changed the geopolitical map of the world and still challenge the region today.

In addition, when Bell came to Baghdad in 1917, it was a vibrant mosaic of Arab tribes, Bedouin, Kurds and Jews, but this vision of Baghdad is inconceivable to most Westerners. Once exposed to the letters, diaries, reports and photographs of Gertrude Bell, one cannot fail to see Iraq and the peoples of the region in a more nuanced light.

"Anybody who is concerned about the Middle East should take her as a role model, in terms of how we should approach understanding another region or culture other than our own."   Magnus Bernhardsson, Professor of History, Williams College

When we began thinking about making a film on Gertrude Bell, we were immediately struck by the tone and quantity of the more than 1600 letters she left behind.  These vibrant, humorous and richly detailed letters were written primarily to her family and friends.  We were intrigued by the contrast between her public self and her private self.  Equally appealing to us is the contrast between her view of events and people, and the impressions of others around her.  We have an innovative way of incorporating those other voices which will contribute moments of conflict and tension.

We began searching for archival footage all over the world with an international team and were blown away by what we found.  Imagine for a moment stunning, never-seen-before footage of the Middle East including Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and the Arabian desert, filmed in the early 1900s. 

Originally shot in 35mm and transferred to HD, these visuals, some of them hand-tinted, will transport the viewer into the exotic, vanished world that Bell loved. They provide a startling contrast to the demonstrations and bomb-shocked cities that we have grown accustomed to seeing in the media.  We have amassed over 500 clips from archives throughout the world.

The footage allows us a window into a past that has been forever altered by military invasion and political upheaval. 

We will also feature Bell’s own exquisite panorama photographs and her intimate portraits.  She left behind a portfolio of over 7000 photographs.

© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

Our unique access to materials in both the Bell family personal archive and the Iraq National Library and Archives in Baghdad allows us a behind-the-scenes view into this remarkable story.  We also will include an Iraqi perspective from colleagues, acquaintances and friends from her life in Baghdad – a perspective often neglected.

The proceeds raised in our Kickstarter campaign will pay for the digitization of the rare, never-seen-before archival footage that we will use in the film. We are asking the archives to retrieve the material from their vaults and scan the original 35mm negatives. The results are stunning, but it is a costly process.

Here is the bonus! Once the digitization of the archival footage has been completed for Letters from Baghdad, it will be available for other filmmakers, historians and the public. It is in the spirit of cross cultural collaboration, support of the international film community, and socially responsible film-making that we are passionate about this aspect of making Letters from BaghdadThis is our contribution to the ongoing preservation of archival footage throughout the world.

Because of your support, we now have an additional $32,000 to begin paying for usage and licensing fees, one of the costliest expenses of an archival-based film.

The theme of our campaign is to honor a woman in your life, on our website or even in the on-screen credits, by supporting Letters from Baghdad: a film made by women filmmakers bringing to light the story of an extraordinary woman, Gertrude Bell. Click on the logo below.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

We are very grateful to be supported by a grant from: 

And greatly appreciate the support of our fiscal sponsor IFP and an amazing group of partners and advisors: 

We are Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, the founding partners of Between the Rivers Productions. We started working together 6 years ago on a film about another extraordinary woman, journalist Ruth Gruber. Zeva produced that film and Sabine was the editor. We discovered that we have the same sensibility, and that we collaborate incredibly well. When we found out that we both loved the story of Gertrude Bell, we decided to embark on making LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD. Sabine is an ACE award nominated editor who edited over 20 feature documentaries including Academy award-nominated MY ARCHITECT, MAD HOT BALLROOM, and MY REINCARNATION. Zeva is an award-winning producer whose film, AHEAD OF TIME,  premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, was broadcast on Showtime Channel and won 5 Best Documentary awards. Zeva came to film from a career in still photography and her work has been extensively published and exhibited.

Our combined films have screened theatrically, at every major international festival, and have broadcast on networks including HBO, Showtime, PBS, ARTE, and BBC.

We are joined by a team of luminaries in the industry who are equally enthusiastic about bringing Gertrude Bell's story to light:

Executive Producers: Thelma Schoonmaker, Denise Benmosche,                    Elizabeth Rodriguez Chandler

Co-Producers: TigerLily Films (London)  Yuzu Productions (Paris) 

Consulting Producers: Carla Solomon, Andrea Miller, Margot Steinberg 

Archival Advisor: Kevin Brownlow 

Grant Advisor: Rob Quaintance

Archival Producer: Judy Aley 

Design: subtitle, Pablo Delcan

Kickstarter Team: Alden Peters, Stefanie Diaz 

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Risks and challenges

We have been working on this project for over two years and completed extensive research throughout the world, unearthed magnificent archival footage, developed an exciting script and vision for the film and gathered a team of incredibly talented professionals and experts. We have succeeded in raising a significant amount of our budget including a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to move the project forward.

The greatest challenge we face now is to raise the funds necessary for our costliest element - the archival footage - in order to complete the film. Together with our team of historians, archaeologists, designers, editors, writers, researchers, and your help, we are poised to finally bring Gertrude Bell’s story to the big screen - where it belongs!

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    TRAVEL WITH GERTRUDE! Receive a signed 11"x 14'" poster of "Guide to Gertrude Bell in the Hauran" by Kevin Cannon depicting Bell's 1905 journey through Syria, plus a DIGITAL DOWNLOAD of the film and your name on our website honor roll.

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    THANK YOU for joining our journey! HONOR a special woman in YOUR life by posting her name along with yours on our website honor roll. IMMERSE yourself into Gertrude Bell's world with a SIGNED copy of Janet Wallach’s biography DESERT QUEEN in a LFB TOTE BAG!

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    RECOGNIZE a special woman in YOUR life by posting a 50 word description of her on our website. START A COLLECTION! Receive a SET of 2 BOOKS written by Gertrude Bell on her travels throughout the Middle East
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    FOR ART LOVERS! Be honored by name in the credits of the film and enjoy a LIMITED EDITION HARD COVER BOOK of original artwork from the film. You'll also receive 2 TICKETS to an advanced screening and a SPECIAL PRE-RELEASE DVD in an LFB TOTE BAG for both attendees!

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    AN EXCLUSIVE AFFAIR! Celebrate with a PRIVATE SCREENING and a presentation by filmmakers Zeva and Sabine and HONOR a very special woman in your life in the on-screen film credits along with your name. You'll also get 2 tickets to the NYC PREMIER (travel not included) and one LIMITED EDITION hard cover LFB BOOK, plus a special swag LFB TOTE BAG with a SPECIAL PRE-RELEASE DVD for both attendees!

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Funding period

- (30 days)