Friday, August 18, 2017

Letters from Baghdad

Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (,
September 21–29, 2017

Churchill, Bell, and T. E. Lawrence "of Arabia"
Letters from Baghdad, directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, handles an enormous amount of information in a calm, mostly archival portrayal of lands and times that appear exotic to Western viewers—the Middle East—today’s Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. The period is approximately the turn of the twentieth century to post–World War I, and the story’s lovely voice-over narrative by Tilda Swinton reading Gertrude Bell’s letters home to her family in England is key to the lulling, fascinating atmosphere that Eastern music amplifies along with unending views of desert landscapes, plodding camels, teeming markets, and tribal peoples clothed in voluminous fabric and unusual hats or headdresses. Sun-drenched, boxy dwellings, palaces and mosques decorated with Islamic patterns, and abundant snapshots and scratchy film footage of the region’s magnificent ruins add to the tingling ambiance. But what is it all about? Can the audience connect the dots and understand what’s going on beyond Gertrude Bell’s biography? For Americans, it might take more than watching the film to understand the content, for reams of history occur in the milliseconds of frames—history poignantly related to the Middle East’s warring state of today. On its intellectual level, the movie’s about the meddling of foreign, imperialistic, and supremacist powers in Eastern cultures.
On a simpler level, this meticulously created movie portrays an educated and brilliant British aristocrat, Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), whose independence, passionate pursuit of Arab culture, and ceaseless effort to establish an independent Arab state out of Mesopotamia broke through the glass ceiling for women of her times. Her social position and Oxford education helped her, but her love for the area and her ability to integrate with its tribes, was the main reason for her success at the top level of Britain’s foreign policy makers in forming modern Iraq. She worked with Churchill, T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” Percy Cox, and numerous high commissioners during both wartime and postwar negotiations—the latter to install King Feisal as Iraq’s first head. In the war period, Britain avowed it would serve only in the capacity of advisor to the future government, in return for help overthrowing the Ottoman rule. Snippets from Bell’s eloquent letters to her father over the course of more than twenty years, outline these essential experiences of her life, including her love for a married military man who was killed at the Battle of Gallipoli.
One can walk away with Bell’s bio as the movie’s take-away, and surely it is worthy, but deep, disturbing history is embedded in the film’s main World War I segment, the peak of Bell’s life and work. But how many American viewers know the Ottoman Empire’s history in the Middle East or the “Sykes-Picot” pact that Russia, Britain, and France secretly negotiated to divvy up their respective territories of influence within the future Arab state (not unlike Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt carving up Eastern Europe at Yalta after the next World War).
The movie employs periodic “talking heads”—people who knew Bell and share their impressions. Gilbert Clayton, Bell’s colleague with the same liberal, “self-determination” views, tells us: “When the war broke out, the intelligence department realized that the Arabs were going to have a considerable influence on its outcome in the Eastern theater. Britain pledged to recognize and support an Arab state if the Arabs assisted Great Britain in the war.”
But instead we witness Britain’s egregious betrayal of the Arabs—instead of assisting them after the war, Britain occupies them. We are shown an image of Britain’s official proclamation to the Arabs stating: Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors, but as liberators.
As such promises soon became obvious lies, the true believers in a sovereign Arab state, such as Bell and T. E. Lawrence, felt ashamed but had to remain loyal to their government. Although Letters from Baghdad comes across as an impartial conveyance of history and biography, it delivers the truth: We are still in the aftermath of all that World War I Middle East meddling by foreign powers. The region is still fighting for independence and self-determination. Even back then, oil was a motive for foreign intervention in the guise of help. The movie includes clips of Standard Oil aiding the Arab rebellion against the Brits, after it was clear Britain intended to control Iraq. The Americans, seeing how this rule would compromise their own interests, took the side of the rebelling Arabs. Bell wrote in a letter: “We don’t know what we want to do in this country. We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure you’ll be there to take theirs?” Time and again the movie reminds us that governments never learn from history.
The hawkish British commissioner in charge of the new country didn’t help the situation. Arab nationalist resistance rose with calls of “We want independence! Let the British leave our country!” One village refused to pay its taxes and received a warning that if it didn’t pay by such and such a date, it would be bombed. It was bombed. Other villages then joined the protest until they were “terrorized into submission.” An Arab journalist at the time tells us: “These were events to make humanity weep.”
As always in history, the informed, rational, and humane voices like Bell’s, Cox’s, Lawrence’s, and Clayton’s were ignored. Greed, power, and Western—even empire—supremacy reigned. Images of foreign diplomats in casual white on the green lawns of the properties they’ve requisitioned for their comfort make a strong statement. And Bell was not separate from this cohort; she dressed in finery that symbolized her position in the “empire.”
We leave the theater knowing that the Iraqi events of a century ago that “make humanity weep” continue today throughout the Middle East. With grace, compassion, and democratic values, Letters from Baghdad makes this point.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hermia & Helena

Written and directed by Matías Piñeiro
Featured September 2–20, 2017, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (


Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena continues his direction of contemporary stories linked to Shakespeare’s heroines, in this case the love-crossed women from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Loosely, the filmmaker’s protagonists, Camila and Carmen, share love objects the way Shakespeare’s Hermia and Helena do—Camila loves Lukas, Carmen’s old boyfriend, and Carmen has her eye on Leo, Camila’s old lover. Riffing further on Shakespeare’s love for “switches,” Camila and Carmen swap apartments—Camila takes over Carmen’s New York City pad to pursue the same arts fellowship that Carmen has just left; and Carmen takes over Camila’s pad in Buenos Aires. In a sense they swap lives, but with different end results, for Camila, whose fellowship project is translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish, has clear objectives and purpose, while Carmen feels she’s wallowing in the same place as the year before.
The movie’s achievement is its rendering of contemporary life, not only in its portrayal of young adults coping with carving a satisfying future for themselves, but also in its filmmaking techniques, or creativity. Hermia & Helena will likely get few stars from viewers who judge according to convention, but its contrivances, artifice, and experimental intrusions add the exact dimension of young artists at work today.
Agustina Muñoz as Camila is worth the entire ninety minutes in the theater. Her face, all of its thoughts and expressions, and her voice, so firm and self-assured, mesmerize but also deliver a wonderfully powerful female character. (Thank you, Mr. Piñeiro.) The passivity and guarded personality of Lukas (Keith Poulson)—Camila’s character foil—also portray reality in two ways: the lack of opportunities for trained artists in a glutted and information-age professional world, and the fear many young adults—not just men—have of risking a serious relationship. In contrast to Lukas, Camila has no fears and goes after what she wants. She’s in New York not really for the arts residency but in order to find an old love—Gregg (Dustin Guy Defa)—and also to meet her American father Horace (Dan Sallitt), who never took any responsibility for her mother’s accidental pregnancy, nor ever considered looking for his Argentine offspring. Because of her intelligent, direct approach, Camila gets the answers she’s come for. Her father’s past disinterest and dissociation inevitably cause her grief, but her rational understanding of people and life allows her to accept him, at least formally. Here, there seems to be an important omission in the subtitles. Camila’s in bed under the covers at her father’s house after their painful conversation. We hear her voice leaving a message for her half-sister Mariane in Buenos Aires who has just given birth to a first son. Between restrained sobs, Camila congratulates Mariane and says, “Camilo,” we assume the boy’s name. But the subtitles say, “Beautiful” and omit the “Camilo.” Thus, a deep love-tribute to Camila is lost, and it’s an important one for it juxtaposes Camila’s sisterly love against the nonexistent paternal love of her past, and probably her future. 
The interspersed contrivances that contemporize the movie for better or worse, depending on the viewer, include periodic rag music for transitions; flashbacks to Buenos Aires marking each month Camila has been in New York; the subplot of Daniele (another Shakespearean swap, this one of friends); Gregg’s short film (a film within a film alla Pyramus and Thisbee of A Midsummer Night’s Dream); handwritten chapter titles, not unlike acts; and a few dream sequences showing Camila’s unconscious at work on her translation (possibly paralleling the fairies’ forest). But all of these devices work in their mishmash way toward a resolution for the principal characters that completes the movie—with a door shutting and opening, shutting and opening (just like life). Both Camila and Lukas agree to set out and dare change—an unknown future—rather than stagnate in the same place. Piñeiro’s filmmaking mirrors the characters’ trajectory and steps in its own uninhibited and creative direction.