Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture


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. 

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