Gertrude Bell “The Female Lawrence of Arabia” Letters From Baghdad 2018 Documentary Directed by Zeva Oelbaum, Sabine Krayenbuhl. Gertrude Margaret Lothian Bell arrived first in 1892 Teheran, a guest of her sister and brother-in-law, Ambassador to Persia. A First in History from Oxford didn’t explain the way she immediately felt at home in the exotic locale. Bell imediately began to learn Persian and struck out on exploratory visits no western female had ever attempted – wearing full British regalia.
Back and forth from England several times, she settled in the Mideast, wrote a travel book, kept diaries, took thousands of photographs, and was responsible for considerable film. Forthright and without ulterior motive, she ingratiated herself with Arab leaders across the nation. Though long suspected of being a spy by both “sides,” she became the go-to person for information on intertribal politics and unmapped wells often trekking 1500 miles with 20 camels.
The Royal Geological Society found her as indispensable as did negotiating governments, the latter especially in Egypt. Bell knew when rebellion and war were coming. She believed Persia belonged to the Arabs. General Sir Gilbert Clayton: “I attribute much of the success of his (T.E. Lawrence) enterprises to intelligence in which Miss Bell had a very big hand.” A thoroughly arresting film utilizing her own written material and photographs as well as period footage and actors playing those who knew her. Rent on Amazon Prime or Free with PBS Trial.
Queen of the Desert 2015 Written and directed by Werner Herzog. A prettified Hollywoodization of Bell’s story with Nicole Kidman. Rent on Amazon Prime.
War Correspondent Marie Colvin (1956-2012) A Private War 2018 Based on the 2012 Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner. Directed by Matthew Heinman. Times Correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) was an inexplicably courageous documentarian of some of the most violent civil wars of our time. Losing an eye in Syria and being diagnosed with PTSD hardly slowed her down. “You’re never going to get to where you’re going if you acknowledge fear.” We get a glimpse of the difficulty of life back in “civilization.”
In 2012 Colvin returned to Syria with photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) and was killed. Conroy, despite being gravely injured, survives and continues to work as a photographer. A helluva look at what it takes. Free with Amazon Prime.
Fictional Woman War Photo Journalist: A Thousand Times Good Night 2013. Based on the director’s work as a photo journalist in the 1980s covering conflicts in Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. Directed by Erik Poppe. Juliet Binoche plays the extremely compelling Rebecca who’s drawn to war zones as if magnetized.
This film takes us first to Afghanistan where the heroine records preparation of women suicide bombers (one of the most hair raising segments I’ve ever seen) – she follows one woman to detonation – and later to Keyna under false pretenses. Strain on husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and daughter Steph (Lauryn Canny) are credible and sympathetic. A gripping film. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg RBG 2018. Outstanding Documentary. Directed by Betsy West, Julie Cohen. Make sure every woman you know sees this, men too. An inspiring portrait of only the second woman after Sandra Day O’Connor to sit as a Supreme Court Justice. Increasingly if intermittently ill, whip-smart and courageous, 87 year-old Ginsberg is arguably carrying the extreme burden of holding the Court to higher responsibility while we suffer an unfortunate president. If you pray, send her a prayer.
We follow Ginsberg as she swims upstream through prejudice/sexism at Harvard and Columbia through teaching positions; her appointment by President Jimmy Carter to The United States Court of Appeals to the District of Columbia Circuit and to The Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. Prominent cases are comprehensibly depicted. Interviews with Gloria Steinem and NPR’s Nina Totenberg call out the Justice’s relentless support of women’s rights. The well balanced film shows us the icon’s playful side and explores a fertile, rock solid marriage lasting until her husband’s death. Rent on Amazon Prime.
On the Basis of Sex 2019 Directed by Mimi Leder which takes us deeply into Ginsberg’s marriage and career when just starting out. Amazon Prime.
Slave/Abolitionist Harriet Tubman Harriet 2019 Directed by Kasi Lemmons. 1840s Maryland. Slave Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo), just married to freed man John Tubman (Zachary Momoh), learns that an ancestor of the family’s owner agreed to free her mother and the children 12 years ago when she was 45. Her father Ben (Clarke Peters) presents legal paperwork to prove the injustice. Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) tears it up.
On the verge of being sold (as a troublemaker), Harriet has a vision and runs. (She refuses John’s offer to accompany her fearing he’ll lose his own freedom.) In Philadelphia, abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), astonished she’s made it, connects Harriet with the Underground Railroad. Rather than make a new life for herself, the young woman risks her life again and again determined to get as many of her fellows out as possible.
When the Fugitive Slave Act passes, putting those who escaped in jeopardy, Harriet flees to Canada and continues. She finally confronts the Brodess family and is able to start a life of her own. Effective though formulaic, a sweeping picture of courage and determination without character specifics. Free with HBO Trial on Amazon Prime.
First Woman Filmmaker Be Natural -The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché Documentary 2019 Directed by Pamela Green. A revelation. Chilean born, Paris raised Alice Guy was present at first showings of newly invented moving pictures by the Lumiere Brothers. Then a secretary at Gaumont, she was allowed to make films as long as she didn’t neglect the mail (a diary entry). Hers are among the first narrative short features ever made. Alice used close-ups, hand-tinted color, special effects, and synchronized sound. She produced, directed and wrote. Success promoted her out of the office and into a studio.
Newly married to Herbert Blaché, Alice moved to the United States. After an unsuccessful venture in Queens she founded Solax Studios in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, where all the pre-Hollywood studios began. Out of that one venture came 1000 separate movies until the Depression took it down and Alice found work at other companies. There’s footage of the period, archival excerpts of interviews with the elderly Alice and later her progeny, segments of her highly sophisticated films with stories relevant today.
A wide variety of talking heads from the film business 98% of whom had never heard of her make this effort valuable and riveting. (Filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock refer to her work as inspirational in their memoirs.) There are vast mis-attributions in written histories even today. This endeavors to correct. How she managed to make her way in the business (and out), professional opinions upon viewing the work, and a view to her well earned legacy compel. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Mae West Dirty Blonde 2020 American Masters Documentary directed by Julia Marchesi, Sally Rosenthal. As PBS declares “Mae West `climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong’ to become a writer, performer and subversive agitator for social change.” West was professional performer “Baby Mae” at seven, a vaudevillian at 14, and a movie ingénue at 40 – saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, commanding unheard of remuneration with control over leading men and directors.
Always in control of signature salacious wit and physical appearance, West wrote plays (1926’s “Sex” landed her in jail for corruption) and screenplays reading the public with acute perception. She had a Las Vegas nightclub act in her 60s followed by a recording and finished her days a popular camp icon. Business savvy and clout (long before most of her peers) allowed the artist to spotlight race and class issues and moral hypocrisy while remaining independent. Thoroughly entertaining. Rent on Amazon Prime.