Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

'The trappings of modernity'

During production, the filmmakers of The Third River faced a challenge. They aimed to depict the ways that IPC’s new pipeline promised to change Iraq for the better. However, in 1951, the major plans of the Development Board had yet to materialize into visible evidence that the film cameras could capture. In short, the filmmakers were challenged to demonstrate a promise of oil modernity yet to come. In his own words, the director wrote about his objective:
Our aim throughout was not merely to make a record of the construction of the 30 in. line, but to put this into its context. The new pipeline is more than an example of remarkable engineering skill; it presages much for the people of Iraq. During our stay in the Middle East, the new ‘fifty-fifty’ agreement was signed…About us was the bustle of change; and we wanted to say, however briefly, however synoptically, that the subject of our film was, fundamentally, Iraq itself. Our theme was, indeed, twinfold: in the foreground, the drama and achievement of building the pipelines, the pumphouses, the terminal; and beyond all this, the development and improvement of the human lot which the Iraq Government, through the Development Board, would have the means to achieve. 
In a key example of how the filmmakers worked to represent 'Iraq itself' in The Third River, the narrator describes the Iraqi capital of Baghdad as a city that is beginning 'to acquire the trappings of modernity'. This is due to the country's increased oil wealth. The narrator goes on to define modernity, on the one hand, in terms of new modes and a greater scale of energy consumption: the internal combustion engine, power lines and factories. On the other hand, the film montage presents a sequence of perspectives on the city that highlight its physical transformation into a modern metropolis: wide boulevards, shiny buses, concrete buildings, traffic officers. Together, the voiceover and montage craft a straightforward and simplified image of a modern city that works to stand in for the promise of Iraq's new oil wealth.
The Development Board's overhaul of commercial boulevards in central Baghdad during the 1950s were among the most visible schemes to clear the city centre for better vehicular and pedestrian traffic. For example, Nooraddin has described that the new plan for Al Rashid Street included 'removing some structures to create new public squares and cutting or removing the balconies from buildings abutting the street so as to allow enough space for the London buses imported from England. Many buildings were also demolished and replaced with large and high-rise structures, so changing the established character of the street.' These dramatic transformations to the built environment in Baghdad created a tangible image of a modern capital that was captured and circulated in The Third River and later films. However, the whole picture of the city was never captured. In fact, approximately 45 per cent of settlements in Baghdad were located in sarifa areas throughout the city, where residents lived in mud reed huts without clean running water or electricity. These areas of the modern city were rendered invisible in IPC’s imaginary of modern Iraq.

During the 1950s, the Development Board invited several world-famous modernist architects to design landmark buildings for the capital. These building projects also generated images of modern Baghdad that linked Iraqi oil to the aesthetics of international modernism. Not only were Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright drawing up plans for new landmarks throughout the capital, but a vibrant home-grown discourse on the future of modern Iraqi architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry and literature was constantly circulating in meetings, exhibitions and conversations put on between Baghdad’s young practitioners and thinkers of the day. Images of the Iraqi capital as an emerging site of modernist architectural projects proliferated in IPC's periodicals, journals of architecture and planning and international newspapers in various maps, drawings and photographs. Baghdad was thus the stage upon which oil modernity was made most visible. IPC's The Third River was the first film to promote this image directly to Iraqi audiences.

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