Writing history is an act of construction. Like buildings, history gets assembled from the resources at hand. Like filmmaking, its final act is the sweeping of deleted scenes from the cutting room floor.
Showpiece City discusses two films, both of them shot by a single British film production company, back-to-back, in 1957–58. The first, titled ADMA for Short, was paid for by British Petroleum; the second, unofficially titled These Are the Trucial States, was paid for by the British government. For the book, I was able to view the latter film, and it figures prominently in Chapter Two. Although I couldn’t view the ADMA film, I understood that it chronicled the readying of offshore drilling by BP-operated Abu Dhabi Marine Areas (ADMA).*
Artifacts of the past can reappear as quickly as they disappear. Late last year, I learned that ADMA for Short had been made available online.**
In Showpiece City, I frame the ADMA film as a foil for the Trucial States film. In contrast to the meager, black-and-white landscape of slight sustenance conveyed in the Trucial States film, I knew that the ADMA film was shot in Technicolor; therefore, I imagined it as a future-forward story about British technology bringing forth a better world. I wasn’t wrong about this set up, but what I realized upon finally seeing ADMA for Short is that its geography was more complex than just that of British oilmen in faraway lands.
As one might expect, the BP film features company employees, with scenes of white engineers playing parts similar to wartime island survivors. (South Pacific was released the same year.). Also as one might expect, non-white employees, “from all over the Commonwealth,” merely fill in supporting roles and fade into the scenery. All of these men are creating “the settlement” on Das Island, which was to house BP’s offshore headquarters in Abu Dhabi. While supplies to build a camp arrive via the “mainland” (Bahrain, which is actually another island), the men focus on the horizon in anticipation of an approaching vessel made by another cast of characters.
In contrast to the sweat-drenched British men and the lungi-clad Arab men, the film features shipbuilders in the West German port of Kiel. Some of them smoke cigarettes while examining a maquette fit for a James Bond movie. Others sport waxed trench coats and blowtorches that ward off northern Europe’s non-stop drizzle. Some of them supply audible German catchphrases like, “Das machen wir wie immer ,” or “Let’s do it like we always do.” They are keeping to schedule, displaying can-do confidence with the excitement of creating something unprecedented: a portable offshore platform for Abu Dhabi.
A West German harbor that had supplied armaments and naval ships hardly more than a decade earlier to the Third Reich was now welding for British Petroleum. The shipyard belonged to the Ruhr valley–based mining and steel company, Gutehoffnungshütte, and lies not too far from where forced labor camps once housed dockworkers. ADMA for Short presents a newly tailored role for German industry as endorsed by the European Economic Community, the proto-EU body that reconfigured coal and steel from arsenal into peacekeeping supplies. The film reflects a postwar European order—composed of British and French geologists, American designers, Dutch seamen, and German shipbuilders—committed to peaceful petroleum extraction. Although Great Britain was not a treaty member of the EEC, the film fittingly reveals how BP’s petroleum imports could have a role in it. Upon completion of work in Kiel, a speech-maker declares, “Gemeinsame Arbeit zum gemeinsamen Nutzen,” or “Working together, benefiting together.”
“This is the area, and this is the island,” says a BP employee at the start of the film, as he points from an airplane window. Below Das Island is small enough to be captured without the handheld camera having to pan. The geography that an engineer comprehends is called a site, and in this film the site is the island stripped of any traits—“no water, no sheltering palm trees, not a scrap of shade to reduce its burning temperatures.” Like those of Thomas More and Robert Louis Stevenson, this island is made distinct from anything else; its edges outline the story about to be told.
Once the site is determined to be devoid of anything hospitable to life, it is then that technicians and engineers fill it—with machines, canteens, communal showers, and tables topped with tartan spreads and glass ashtrays, “every single thing … from beer to bulldozers.”
The film features reenactments of past events which the camera crew didn’t witness. For these scenes, BP’s workers perform as earlier versions of themselves, building “the settlement” that they already occupied in segregated districts. There’s a scene of pioneering surveyors and then the arrival of a ship that releases earth-moving equipment onto shore, like a retelling of Noah’s ark. “Civilization finally caught up with Das Island.” Every step is a deliberate choice, whether in filmmaking or extracting petroleum.
The island, it turns out, is a receptacle for an engineered island, ADMA Enterprise, the platform manufactured on the Kiel Canal. The shipbuilders “had built a barge, before their eyes she became an island.” They planted a tree on it. It’s described as “a maze of machinery and living quarters.” We see it towed around Gibraltar, through the Red Sea, bypassing Aden toward Gulf waters. It resembles a floating city, with towers, smokestacks, and people.
Staged reenactments, aerial shots, a commissioned soundtrack, and proper opening credits make ADMA for Short a more polished film than These Are the Trucial States. In Showpiece City, I hypothesize that the latter film was never released because it was deficient in the kinds of narrative that ended up selling Dubai’s desert land as a source of imagination and profit. What I see in ADMA for Short is an island auditioning for the part Dubai eventually secured, namely of a land portrayed as so empty, so desolate that it craves engineering, excavator scoops, and water lines. The island off the coast of Abu Dhabi was a perfect model for how the projects of engineers and planners were about to transform Dubai into a patchwork of sites.
As the floating platform approaches Das, the camera crew films non-British laborers on shore, crouched and looking up at “the strange monstrous craft.” Levitating above them, a new datum has arrived, an assembled stage that they can access only if permitted. Their modest prefab barracks are situated near a provisioned mosque but far from this jetty. Island life on Das is delineated, segregated, and defined. It’s a rehearsal of the coming urban projects that future film crews will shoot.
For today’s viewer, ADMA for Short’s storyline will feel overly constructed, and therefore false. In this way, it’s not unlike These Are the Trucial States, with its own roots in government propaganda filmmaking. It is too easy to dismiss it—or, as the historian Michel de Certeau might describe it, to claim a cleft between this filmed propaganda and so-called “truth.” This film is a written history— scripted and narrated. It is one that we are forced to reckon with and that de Certeau would advise not to keep at too far a distance. The histories written in films like this one are more insidious than we might want to admit. They are with us, in the languages we use, in the myths we let circulate.
The future of written history isn’t just based on new evidence, waiting to be posted online. Its sources also already live and mutate with us every day, in structures that prove conducive to reshaping. Language is one of those structures. In ADMA for Short, we can discern the language once used, and is still used, to portray Dubai’s urban development as antidote to the threatening desert.
In The Writing of History, de Certeau refers to “making history,” which is indeed the writing of history. History is something crafted, not something that happens. In an era when fake news is sometimes, dangerously, contrasted with an objective truth, it’s important that de Certeau reminds us that history gets made on unstable ground. He is famous for the quip, “History is never sure.” My point here is not to ponder whether we can ever know anything with certainty, but we should not so quickly dismiss a propaganda film in exchange for a scientific counterpart, which de Certeau warns will always be absent. Written words are scripted words, whether for a BP film or an academic press.
ADMA for Short is no origin of the signs and words that got Dubai built, but it is a powerful deployment of them, replete with inchoate myths of transposable cities, ambulant technicians, and human infallibility. In 1958, two short, largely unnoticed films had within them the ingredients for how Dubai would get pitched to the world. They composed a narrative structure about how structure itself would be the story—in the form of buildings, road networks, dredged ports, and electrical grids. These two films result from spliced footage and edited storylines. Much has been dropped onto the proverbial cutting room floor, ready to be picked back up by the next writers of history.