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No sector of society made more enthusiastic use of the sponsored film than the oil companies; no medium was more enthusiastically embraced by them than the documentary film, and so nobody interested in the relationship of media to society can afford to leave the post-war oil documentary out of its history. P. Russell, Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain
Summoning the popularity and prestige of cinema, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) invented the image of Baghdad for Iraqi audiences as the sight/site of oil modernity in the 1950s. In other words, oil urbanization, or the modernization of the city as shaped by the petroleum industry and its revenues, in Iraq cannot be understood apart from the representation of Baghdad as visible evidence of petroleum’s promise to benefit the national population. The British-controlled oil company in Iraq produced a programme of at least two-dozen sponsored films and cine-magazine episodes between 1951 and 1958, which this essay examines as an emblematic case of neo-colonial film, constituting an archive of media practices that bridge the categories of colonial film on one hand, and industrial film on the other.
After World War II, the Atlantic Charter reinforced the right to democratic self-rule as a global norm and the British state developed creative tactics to abet its continued control over strategic resources in its colonized territories. Oil above all became central to this story and, as this essay will show, British oil companies played a fundamental role towards reinventing the imperial project in the postcolonial context of Iraq. Through a contextualized analysis of the IPC films, I argue that the company public relations office utilized the conventional approaches and standard formats of colonial and industrial film – including montage, scripted voiceover and staged b-roll – to narrativize the association between neo-colonialist practices of oil extraction and national development as causal, inherent and positive.
Following the invention of still and moving image technologies, industrial operations the world over have entailed the systematic production of massive image archives. Indeed, these corporate image worlds should not be dismissed as a subordinate function of industry, but rather recognized as a primary dimension of company operations. During the early twentieth century, as I show elsewhere, the petroleum industry in particular not only used film technologies for internal company needs, but also institutionalized new networks of production and distribution that were chiefly responsible for globalizing the British documentary film movement after World War II. At its peak in the 1950s, the IPC’s public relations media strategy included the bilingual production of annual reports and monthly periodicals, as well as in-house units for documentary photography and film. This IPC Medienverbund served as a critical discursive dimension of the postcolonial landscape of oil extraction in Iraq after World War II.
As we know from Melanie McAlister’s analysis of the relationship between culture and foreign policy in the United States, cultural texts do not simply 'reflect' or 'reproduce' existing social realities but are 'active producers of meaning' situated in precise historical contexts. Thus, this essay aims to understand better how oil companies used film, and more specifically cinematic representations of the modern city, as a strategic aspect of the neocolonial British project to control oil in the Middle East after World War II. In particular, this essay shows how its prestige films and cine-magazine worked to legitimate political acts of foreign exploitation and control of Iraqi oil, land and labour from 1951 to 1958 within a regional context of mounting anti-imperialist discourse and nationalist movement building.
The IPC films were the first moving images of modern Baghdad to be shot on location and circulated widely among general audiences in Britain and, more significantly, to upward of one third of the Iraqi population. This essay focuses on an historical and visual analysis of a selection of the known IPC-sponsored film titles that were produced and distributed prior to the 1958 July Revolution that diminished Britain’s hegemony in Iraq. Since no comprehensive archive of IPC films exists today, this essay introduces two films among the limited number that have been conserved and made available in the archives of the British Film Institute, British Petroleum Video Library, British Pathe and personal collections of former IPC employees. From this small but significant sample, this essay determines that, irrespective of IPC's distinct approaches to production, an underlying set of objectives remained consistent throughout the oil company’s film use: to naturalize the neo-colonial practice of oil extraction, to render the British-controlled IPC invisible in the story of Iraqi oil and to define oil wealth as a promise of post-colonial urban modernity.
- 1 2013-07-06T14:59:39-07:00 Imagining a National Body 10 split 2013-08-28T15:15:36-07:00 Thereafter, Ageless Iraq pins the origins of urban settlement directly to Iraq. In a sequence weaving together various images of ruins from around the country, the commentary states: “These were the first cities of the world, for here in Iraq men first began to build and create a settled way of life. Here were the very beginnings of civilization.” The historical narrative leaps across time to highlight the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, the birth of Islam, and finally the coronation of King Faisal II. The film depicts the King's speech, broadcast over radio, as a sequence that unifies Iraqis as a common national body. Staged close up shots of young men in Baghdad, oil workers in the Kirkuk fields, and unspecified villagers drinking tea gathered on the ground are cut together in a sequence intended to convey that the entire nation was listening intently as the King’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves. Iraq's "natural wealth" is described as being a product of two major industrial undertakings. Agricultural production and irrigation schemes are introduced as the most important to Iraq. This is interesting as it suggests an attempt by the filmmakers to underplay the role of the oil industry at first, despite the fact that the remainder of the film is dedicated to explicating how oil wealth is transforming urban life through development projects in the country. “The revenue from this new wealth is being used to create more wealth for the betterment of the country.” Brief images of oil workers and oil derricks are paired in a short sequence that is intended to stand in for the entire project of oil extraction. The entire sequence on oil runs under one minute. The last part of the film conveys an explicit narrative tying oil extraction to national progress that manifests as a new opportunity for individual citizens of Iraq to improve their social and economic standing. “Today, her revenues from oil are helping Iraq to lay a foundation for a new standard of wellbeing for all her people. The young people of today know that life for them is going to be different, and better, far better, than it was for their fathers.” The visual scenario cuts directly from landscape of oil infrastructure to a montage of pageant floats carrying costumed young women parading before King Faisal II. Images of modern women continue to be featured as indicators of the modernization of urban society in Baghdad. For example, over a montage of women walking onto a campus and working in a chemistry classroom the commentary states, “When you see these young girls in their western clothes, so assured and confident, you’re inclined to forget how surprised their mothers would have been at the idea of training for jobs that their daughters take in their stride. Jobs they thought that only men could and should do.” The film closes with a sequence emphasizing how modern developments in healthcare and education are tied to modernization of urban society. This is particularly tied to the physical appearance and bodies of women in Baghdad. “And it’s natural that with all these modern developments, the women of Iraq are breaking away from their traditional style of dress, unaltered for centuries, to wear the comfortable, practical clothes that are right for this new life. It’s a turn of events significant of a wider change, of a more liberal attitude to life.” The accompanying sequence of a young woman in a tailor shop ends on a shot of her turning in the mirror to admire her dress. The closing sequence depicts two men waving to each other, as one steps on board an airplane, closing the narrative as it began with the perspective of the visitor to Iraq looking out the window at the view of Baghdad from the air, connecting the city to its broader global context. Ageless Iraq clearly addresses a global audience, as opposed to being intended for distribution primarily among Iraqis, as the previous two films. In this sense it offers a different perspective on the project of documenting the modern oil city for a general audience. It presents the nation-state as a unified and seamless community, bound together by a common history and future. This narrative is linked directly to oil, framed as new wealth. The transformation of Iraq is figured most prominently through the image of the urban woman whose outward transformations are told to signify a “wider change” sweeping the country.