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Letters from Baghdad: A Case Study of an Archive-based Documentary With a $1.2 Mn Budget

Letters From Baghdad is a beautiful documentary that uncovers the story of British adventurer, diplomat and Arabist, Gertrude Bell.

(Republished December 11, 2018 to mark the PBS premiere. Original publication: 6/6/2017)

Filmmakers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl reveal the struggles of a brilliant, lone woman in an all-male world.

  • Their research uncovered a largely forgotten but mesmerizing film and photographic archive of the early 20th century.
  • The film blends footage of Arabia, Iran and Turkey, as well as of Bell’s England, with Tilda Swindon’s readings of selections of Bell’s 1,600 letters.
  • Actors add the voices of Bell’s contemporaries, like the youngster T.E. Lawrence.


“What If?”

  • Letters is a poetic film that captures haunting historical lessons.
  • It gives us a seat at the table where the colonial powers carved up the Ottoman Empire after WW1.
  • Those decisions created so many of the conflicts that have ravaged the region since WW2, and have rebounded as violent attacks against the West, too.


  • Letters from Baghdad is a passion project with private funding.
  • Other sources of funds included NEH grants, a Kickstarter Campaign, and an ARTE France deal.

Topline Production Budget: $1.2 Million

  • Above The Line: $217,716
  • Total Production: $352,430
  • Total Post-production including Archive: $509,380
  • Total Professional Services: $75,760
  • Total Budget: $1,155 ,286

Total Marketing & Distribution expenses were $146,000.

Archive Use

  • “We used over 25 archives from all around the world and major ones include: Bundesarchiv, Imperial War Museum, BFI National Archive and National Archives & Records Administration, USA.”
  • “We have over 500 archival footage clips in the film.”


  • Television:
    • BBC
    • ARTE/France + Germany
  • Theatrical:
    • UK: £100,000
    • US: “Approaching $300,000 since we opened in New York on June 2nd.”
    • Runs: NY – 7 weeks, LA: 5 weeks, SF: 7+ weeks.

Development & Production Timeline

February 2009Original Concept
November  2011Begin searching the film archives for footage
March 2012Project launches, self-funded
June 2012Initial Funding raised for development
Winter/Spring 2013Research at Newcastle University and other archives.
Script development
September 2013Work-in-Progress Screenings: British Institute for Studies of Iraq; British Academy Gertrude Bell Conference
November 2013Work-in-Progress Screening: Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum
December 2013Awarded NEH (National Endowment For The Humanities) development grant
March 2014Kickstarter Campaign
Spring/Summer 2014Ongoing Research and Script development; Initial shooting in UK
November 2014Tilda Swinton signs on as the voice of Gertrude Bell & as Executive Producer
December 2014Awarded production grants from NEH and New York State Council for the Arts
April 2015Production shoot at the Sands Film Studio in London
Summer 2015Rough Cut completed
Fall 2015Ongoing Production & Final Edit: footage scanning, recording narration, score composition, sound mixing, animation design.
March 2016Final Cut & Submission to film festivals
September 2016Audience Award: Beirut International Film Festival
October 2016London Premiere: BFI Film Festival
November 2016U.S. Premiere: DOCNYC; Europe Premiere: IDFA Amsterdam
April 2017UK Theatrical Release
June 2, 2017U.S. Theatrical Release at Angelika & Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Full Project Description and Credits From The Producers


  • Letters from Baghdad is the story of a true original—Gertrude Bell—sometimes called the “female” Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Voiced and executive produced by Academy award winning actor Tilda Swinton, the documentary tells the dramatic story of this British spy, explorer and political powerhouse.
  • Bell traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence to help draw the borders of Iraq after WWI.
  • Using never-seen-before footage of the region, the film chronicles Bell’s extraordinary journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British male colonial power.
  • With unique access to documents from the Iraq National Library and Archive and Gertrude Bell’s own 1600 letters, the story is told entirely in the words of the players of the day, excerpted verbatim from intimate letters, private diaries and secret communiqués.
  • It is a unique look at both a remarkable woman and the tangled history of Iraq.
  • The film takes us into a past that is eerily current.


  • Letters from Baghdad tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day.
  • She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today.
  • More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum.
  • Why has she been written out of history?


Personal Hook

  • On a personal note, after the outbreak of WW1, three of my great-uncles enlisted in the AIF: Australian Imperial Force.
  • They were shipped off from Station Pier, Melbourne to Suez, and served in the expeditionary force that, as was said at the time “freed Palestine from the Turk,” beginning in Gaza.
  • We know that campaign didn’t turn out too well for the locals. Or for the West, too.

Focal Awards, 2017

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