Class Film Assignment Live From Baghdad

Letters from Baghdad | Movie review

It’s often been argued that documentaries have a duty towards telling the truth; that if a film presents its footage in a misleading way while simultaneously purporting to being a “factual” account of a true story, it should, perhaps, be descried as irresponsible. Of course, the real truth of it is that if a movie involves editing for emotional affect, it is a fabrication – the nub of the issue is whether the dramatic effect sheds more light on a subject than simply poring through primary sources. Does The Act of Killing tell a straightforward story of the Indonesian genocide? No. But it instigates the truth in a way that only a film could.

In this sense, Letters from Baghdad is the exact opposite of Oppenheimer’s sensibility. It tells the story of Gertrude Bell entirely through scraps of newspapers, through recreations of decade-old interviews with its subject and through the letters of Gertrude Bell herself. Bell was famous for her work in the Middle East at the start of the 20th century. She was a traveller, a writer, an archaeologist, a cartographer, a historian and a major political player who was key to the establishment of the modern state of Iraq. In short, she’s a great subject for a documentary. But through a rigid adherence to factual truth, filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have made one of the least interesting films that could be made of Bell’s life: its dry recollection of sources is little more engaging than someone reading aloud from a school textbook for 95 minutes.

Tilda Swinton voices Bell, and lends an air of gravitas to otherwise standard Ken Burns montage work. Actors play characters from history, and the footage of their talking heads is muddied to fit in with archive footage and old photographs. There’s plenty of footage of camels walking across the desert to the music of Vaughn Williams – and, if nothing else, there’s a certain air of editorial professionalism. (The legendary Thelma Schoonmaker is credited as an executive producer.)

Yet this can’t excuse the deficiencies of the film’s premise. Everything is constructed around Bell’s letters to her father, which are largely perfunctory, and sometimes have the insufferable air of a person explaining where they went on their gap year. Letters from Baghdad tries for contemporary relevance, but brushes over the complexities of history – meaning this ultimately plays as a rushed version of a series best suited for BBC Four.


Sam Gray

Letters From Baghdad is released in selected cinemas on 21st April 2017.

Watch the trailer for Letters From Baghdad here:


Guts - to dare, judgment - to survive.

"Live from Baghdad", a new production of the HBO network, tells us the lifetime story of the people who have two things - guts and judgment. The first one allows them to go to a place precisely at the same time, as other people tend to leave it at any cost. Thanks to the second, they manage to get themselves back in one piece.

The CNN producers Robert Wiener and Ingrid Formaneck have reported a million of top stories form around the World. They know for sure what kind of reports Atlanta (the headquarter of CNN) is waiting from them, and what's infinitely more important, the billions of people in front of TV screens. Like any other reporter involved in the 24-hours news production, they have only one thought in mind all the time - to find a new story to report. In August of 1990, as Iraqi invaded to Kuwait, the both of them were absolutely confident - they are about to report the story of the lifetime.

The crucial part of the movie is the natural and realistic reflection of issues and problems those people face. Many of the situations can be barely imagined by a person who has never been in a third-world country. In the countries where nobody can be sure in anything until to the last moment; where any decision can be completely changed in a blink of the eye; where a direct order from the certain people can overwrite any low; and eventually, where the only one absolute way to solve an issues is the "under-table" cash.

Even though the movie is abundantly saturated with the action scenes, the individuality and the personal skills of the main characters are highly emphasized. Along with the total dedication to the job, Ingrid Formaneck manages to remain a real woman. Strong and weak at the same time, she can support people around her, but also needs to be supported. She doesn't walk around with a machine-gun and she knows when something is too much for her. Robert Wiener is not going to leave the ashes and broken lives behind him, not even to make the Atlanta' bosses happy. The mixture of courage, persistence and caution, honesty and decency helps him and his team to achieve the incredible result. One after another, a set of small scenes is drawing the whole picture of the story. It helps us to understand the inner feelings of the people involved in these events. The way Robert Wiener stares at Saddam Houssein while attaching a microphone on his tie; a barely perceptible nod Naji Al-Hadithi (an official from the Iraq' Ministry of information) gave to Robert on his question about the fate of an American, hold by the Iraq's government.

As for the political message - it is quite independent. The movie clearly shows the Iraqi aggression on Kuwait with the followed devastation of the country, as well as specific aspects of the life under the military-driven government. However, it doesn't make any attempts of judgment or evaluation. The main focus of the movie remains on the journalist's job and their efforts to cover the story as complete as possible.

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