Documentaries

Meet a Female Trailblazer Who Was Erased from History Nearly a Century Ago

Filmmakers: "When we read that she had been written out of history, we had to tell this story."

Photo Credit: Between The Rivers Productions

How will Hillary Clinton's legacy be tampered with in decades to come?

It's a question Letters from Baghdad directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum ask, having examined the history of one influential woman who was written out of history nearly 100 years ago. 

Gertrude Bell was a British explorer and early Arab independence advocate who played an instrumental role in shaping today’s Middle East and founding the nation of Iraq. Together the filmmakers sought to tell her story through archives and official documents, unseen for decades, as well as Bell's own personal letters. 

“Much of what we found was buried in reels that had been in storage for more than half a century,” said Oelbaum. "After compiling more than 700 hours of footage, we felt as though we had truly entered a vanished world.”

The filmmakers also see similarities between Bell's relationship with the media and Hillary Clinton's after observing the weeks and months leading up to the Democratic nominee's unprecedented election loss. 

"After the election, it's more important than ever to legitimize the power of women historically and embrace smart politicians that we didn't vote for," Oelbaum told AlterNet. "When we first read about Gertrude Bell, we were shocked that no one had heard about her and when we read that she had been written out of history, we had to tell this story."

Krayenbühl and Oelbaum began the project in 2012, first looking at the British Invasion of 1918, before focusing on the life of Bell, debatably the most powerful woman in the British empire in her day. During World War I, Bell worked in the Arab Bureau, the British intelligence unit in Cairo, Egypt, and collaborated with British traveler T. E. Lawrence in an effort to forge alliances with Arab tribes before British forces captured Baghdad in 1917.

"Although she was in the colonial office, she was a clear-eyed critic of the nation-building," Krayenbühl said of Bell. "In some ways, we haven't moved forward."

"She really had an appreciation for other cultures and was trying to build bridges between the Iraquis and the Brits, which was very important because she was one of the only ones who spoke Arabic," Oelbaum explained. "She left behind 1,600 letters and declassified documents, political documents, and that's when we discovered the trajectory of being written out of history."

During the Cairo Conference 1921, Bell was an adviser to Winston Churchill, but her name was omitted from newspaper reports as well as his own account of the event in his memoirs. She was the only woman present. 

"It was very easy for her to make enemies no matter what she did, because she was a woman in a position of power. There were many men who she worked with, like General Gilbert Clayton and Sir Percy Cox, who respected and admired her and there were an equal number of men, and more I’m sure, that resented her, because she was a woman intent on doing something important," Oelbaum told Esquire. 
 
As for the Trump card mainstream media played for much of this year, the directors were despondent. 
 
"The media created an avalanche," Krayenbühl said. "They just wanted to create drama, reality TV. They didn't discover until recently that this was a serious threat."
 
Watch an exclusive clip fromLetters From Baghdad

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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