Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Iraqis behind the camera

Midway through shooting The Third River, as the detrimental ramifications of the so-called 'Iran Oil Crisis' upon the British position in global production became evident, IPC’s public relations officers decided to establish a permanent film unit in Baghdad. The explicit purpose of creating the in-country unit was 'to prevent Persian happenings repeating themselves in neighbouring Iraq, by showing the public there that the activities of an oil company benefit not only the shareholders but the country which owns the oil'. Clarke was initially approached to oversee the project; however, he declined the job due to personal reasons. John Shearman, who took up the position to run the unit, has explained that the unit’s objectives were, first, 'to train Iraqi film technicians in [the British] tradition of technical and documentary filmmaking', and second, 'to make films which would explain to the people of Iraq what the oil company was doing in their territory…that it was not really taking away the black gold because it was putting money back into national development'. 

Shearman immediately hired the young cinematographer Peter Kelly who had been part of The Third River production team to stay on in Baghdad as the film unit director. In his own words, Peter Kelly emphasized that that the purpose of the film unit was to make films 'to let Iraqis know that the oil company was doing something worthwhile' and, above all, 'to make films that Iraqis would be interested in watching'. The key strategy employed towards achieving the central objective stated repeatedly by the unit’s representatives was the production of films for Iraqi audiences. Beginning in 1953 the IPC film unit was dedicated to producing original Arabic-language episodes of the company cine-magazine. The series was called Beladuna, which in Arabic means 'our country'. In this regard, the project of imagining Iraqi oil was nominally endowed with a sense of national ownership despite the fact that British interests ultimately controlled the film unit and the company it belonged to.
The unit was led by director Peter Kelly and also included two British cameramen and several Iraqi film technicians, scriptwriters and editors who usually had previous filmmaking experience with Studio Baghdad or other studios and film units in the region. Muhammad Shukri Jameel, Simon Mehran, Abdul Latif Saleh, Yehyeh Faiq, Youseff Andrews and Kerim Mejid were among those Iraqis who worked in the unit and some of these men went on to have significant filmmaking careers in the region afterward. In general, film unit members in Baghdad were hired through word of mouth recommendations and personal networks rather than via formal advertisements.

Arthur Elton, senior film advisor for the IPC, spelled out the motivation behind the approach strategy to make films for Iraqis and by Iraqis, writing that:
If…done imaginatively and from the point of view of the people…themselves (and not from that of the film technicians introduced from overseas), the effect will be gradually to create a favourable attitude towards the oil industry as a whole, and to make the Operating Companies seem a more natural and useful part of the economy…than many people are at present prepared to allow. Irrational, emotional attitudes will be damped down and criticism directed into informed and constructive channels.
The cine-magazine embodied this rationale, as the title Beladuna indicates. However, despite significant Iraqi participation on the ground, it must be recognized that the films were ultimately produced with the oversight of British directors and producers, and endured occasional interventions from top Iraq Petroleum Company and Iraqi Government officials. 

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