Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

The Iraq Petroleum Company Medienverbund

In 1951, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) established its public relations office in conjunction with the new 50-50 agreement. The focus of the office was to produce and circulate periodicals and films that explained the company’s operations in Iraq to internal company employees as well as the general public. This included magazines, illustrated reports, company calendars and annual diaries, which were produced in English and Arabic versions and circulated throughout Britain and the Middle East.

Circulation of the monthly magazines reached 46,000 per issue for Ahl al Naft (in Arabic) and 20,000 per issue for its English-language counterpart Iraq Petroleum. In its inaugural issue the editor in chief of Iraq Petroleum explained that, 
Between them the two publications represent an important step in the forward march of the Iraq Petroleum Company and its Associates, and it is confidently hoped that it is a step that will lead to a closer integration of the interests of all our people everywhere, from Banias to the Persian Gulf, from Baba Gurgur to the crush and bustle of Oxford Street.
The publication headquarters for Ahl al Naft was based in Beirut, with contributions from Arab writers from across the region. Meanwhile, the English-language version produced in central London made its way into the homes and offices of company employees living throughout Europe and the Middle East. Long features on national development programmes in Iraq as well as lighter essays on artistic or historical issues were typical of the content of both publications. Photo essays and articles about modern architecture, art and everyday life in Baghdad were frequent from the earliest issues in 1951.

A strong relationship between the IPC public relations office and the Iraqi government was made explicit through the regular contributions of state ministers writing about topics from education policy to housing programmes. Close collaboration between the government and the company was further reflected in the reproduction of exact photographs and text from the IPC periodicals in publicity documents published by Iraq’s Directorate-General of Guidance and Broadcasting, such as the three-volume tome Land of Two Rivers: Building a New Iraq. An internal report by the IPC public relations office emphasizes that IPC also made films with the cooperation of the Iraqi government, 'which welcomed the concept that films would publicise the country's historical traditions, plans for development and, generally speaking, arouse public interest, both inside and outside Iraq.' 

IPC’s approach to making films was distinguished by the company’s objective to project a vision of modern Iraq for Iraqi audiences, as opposed to the precedent set by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Beginning in 1921, just 10 years after the completion of the first pipeline to Abadan, Anglo-Iranian used photography and film technologies chiefly to document company operations in oil-producing regions for company executives and stockholders in Britain. These silent reels were the earliest films to narrativize the discovery and development of the British oil industry in the Middle EastIn subsequent decades, Anglo-Iranian, Shell and ARAMCO sponsored prestige films that were intended to entertain and educate general audiences in order to bolster those companies’ reputations among potential consumers.

Traditionally, British and American oil company films were produced in English and translated into other languages for distribution in other markets. However, after the nationalist movement in Iran ousted Anglo-Iranian in 1951, the Iraq Petroleum Company newly established public relations office reconsidered the question of how film use could best serve the company. The result was a novel approach that prioritized the production of Arabic-language films and an emphasis on direct distribution to Iraqi audiences, in addition to the standard industry practice of sponsoring films made by British production companies in English that were later translated for regional distribution.

Midway through production of its first company film The Third River, IPC’s film officer John Shearman began to recruit British filmmakers for a new Baghdad-based film unit. As Peter Kelly, the unit's director, has explained, the IPC film unit was distinct from its contemporaries because of its explicit concern with making films for 'the cinema-going Iraqi people' as opposed to stockholders or consumers in Britain.​ Between 1953 and 1958, the unit shot, scripted and edited 13 episodes of the IPC cine-magazine Beladuna in 35mm, each comprised of two or three short films about Iraq and its regional context. The films tended to focus on various aspects related to the modernization of Baghdad from its new bus system to its modern architecture and planning. At the same time, IPC continued sponsoring films produced by British production companies that examined similar themes in long form, such as Ageless Iraq

Released in 1954, Ageless Iraq is a twenty-one-minute-long documentary that sets out to narrate the history of modern Iraq for general audiences. Sponsored by the Iraq Petroleum Company and produced by the Associated British Pathe in association with Film Centre. Practically, no records related to the production of Ageless Iraq exist in public archives, and little is known about the reception of the film other than 1956 Film User and To-day's Cinema catalogues that describe the film as educational and recommended for use in schools as a teaching aid on the Middle East.

The IPC public relations office assumed that the company films, 'probably contributed to bringing Iraq before the public eye, both in the sense of awakening the interest of the Iraqi people themselves, many of whom had little or no concept of their own country's history and an equally sketchy knowledge of development projects.' Indeed, the IPC films were the first to project moving images of the modernization of Baghdad to mass audiences in Iraq. Together, the oil company films and cine-magazine constructed a new national imaginary for Iraqis residing in the north, centre and south of the country, many of whom had never travelled to other parts of Iraq. The popularity of cinema and its accessibility to all sectors of the population made the oil films a particularly direct means through which the company worked to communicate with Iraqis and shape the national discourse on oil.

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