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A film about the Emirate of Bahrain 1978

Filming at the dry dock Bahrain

In October 1978, we received a strange request.  It appeared that the Saudi ambassador to Bahrain was willing to pay, personally, for a film about the Emirate.

I could not raise my regular crew, Tony Mander was occupied elsewhere.  I spoke to the Australian John Barnard who was, temporarily, resident in London.  He was a first class cameraman and had worked with us before.  He had his own assistant whose name I cannot recall.  The assistant had been on one of the recent expeditions with Thor Heyerdahl.

I also took along Derek Shepherd, my UPITN colleague as production manager.  We flew in to Bahrain together and made our way to the appointed hotel – La Vendome.  It was quite old, but was clean and run by Lebanese management and staff.  We noticed from the outside that there was evidence of water leaking between the bricks at the top of the building and running down almost to the first floor.  We had a habit of giving a hotel a full inspection before entering.

The interior was clean, but quite old and in need of re-decoration.  The bill for the hotel was being paid for by the Bahrain Government and the young man sent to us as liaison later announced that, being an Islamic country, they would not be paying for alcoholic drinks.  The hypocrisy of all this was shown by the fact that fifty yards from the hotel, there was a drinks store that specialised in Scotch and various Gins apart from Rums and Vodkas.
We bought our beers there when we knew that we would be away from the hotel for the day.

The temperature and humidity in Bahrain were high.  The temperature was 87 degrees Fahrenheit with the humidity 87 per cent.  Outside, we were like hot damp cloths within minutes of departure.

We settled in and had some lunch.  The waiter at lunch told us that there was a swimming pool on the roof and that we should try it.  Off we went to find that we were the only ones up there.  The pool was about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide it was six foot deep at one end and three feet at the other.

John Barnard cameraman

John Barnard

John Barnard noticed that there was a crack in the paving between the end of the pool and the front wall of the hotel.

This was the cause of the water mark on the outside the hotel.

We lay in the deck chairs gazing at the blue sky while trying to calculate the weight of the water and how long it would be before the hotel collapsed.

It didn’t in our time.

Next day, I went with Derek to the Ministry to meet up with our liaison man who we called Yussuf.

We were told what they wanted in the film.  It included all their achievements including the first oil well in the Middle East, the first girls school in 1929 and their new hospital, and their new schools, and their new land reclamation scheme.

They also had a device that I had never heard of before, it is called a Tropospheric Scatter Station.  It broadcasts radio and television waves greater distances than normal via the troposphere.  It seems that it was used for the movement of signals from the north of Arabia down to the south.

Then there was their history.  Bahrain has been the centre for trade in the whole Middle-Eastern region for several thousand years.  We visited the ruins of a 16th century Portuguese fort which was spread over a wide area.  The ruins had become an attraction for visitors. The size of the ruins indicated that it was a very important location for sixteenth century trade in the area.

Burial mounds

Castle ruins Dilmun

The most ancient part of the island’s history was the story of the Dilmun people who were traders 3,000 BC.  They traded with the aid of seals.  These seals have been found in various parts of the island, as well as in India, and are about two inches in diameter and embossed with patterns and profiles.

We were told that the seals were something like a credit card in that a merchant would make two identical seals and leave one with an overseas trading partner.  The merchant would then send an associate to do trade and his proof of being bona fide was the possession of the second identical seal.

Burial mounds Dilmun

Castle ruins Dilmun

The seals have become something of a symbol of Bahrain.   The National Bank’s huge doors are decorated with copies of the seals about two foot six inches in diameter.
We filmed all this.

We found the original oil well which by now had been reduced to a three inch pipe coming out of the ground to a tap and was now encased in a sort of glass cage with a notice telling of its origins.  It is located south of Jebel Dukhan and now, there is a museum nearby, but it was not there when we visited.

The well began flowing in earnest in June 1932, producing 400 barrels a day.  In 1978, the oil from the well was being drawn up elsewhere.

We filmed the Arab stallions in their stud farm.  This was out in the desert which always seemed to be close to the inhabited areas of the island.

Arrivals at the Majlis

Arrivals at the Majlis

One day, we went off to the Majlis.  This is a meeting of the elders, the government or high ranking officials in the council.

It is held in a hall that would be the size of an average village hall.  Seats and coffee tables were placed around the entire interior wall.  I was invited to take a seat, while John Barnard and crew operated from the centre of the hall.  We had arranged to get studio lights from Bahrain Television, but they did not arrive and the senior man from the ministry was not pleased with us.  However, in turn we were not pleased with Bahrain Television.  John decided he could shoot in available light and he obtained excellent pictures.

Sheikh Isa arriving at the Majlis

Sheikh Isa arriving at the Majlis

For the first time, we were to see Sheik Isa bin Salman al Khalifah, the diminutive ruler of Bahrain always seemed to have a friendly face and was renowned for inviting foreigners to tea that he met while strolling on the beach.  As Sheik Isa walked in he gave a wave that was meant for me and the crew. He was a charming man, well liked by all but his political opposition, who seemed to have the backing of Iran and Iraq.  Both of these countries lay claim to the island of Bahrain.

The Majlis consisted of the audience, mainly councillors, speaking with the Sheik and, on occasion airing their grievances.

Meanwhile, servants came round the hall with incense, its smoke billowing from a hand-held metal box.

As they stopped in front of each person, the recipient would wave a hand as if beckoning someone, this to bring the aroma to the nose.

It was pleasant and I realised that it was the same fragrance that we were quite used to at High Mass at St. Francis Church during my childhood. It was Francinsense.

The Majlis

The Majlis

The following day, we went to Government House where Sheik Isa was to meet Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia.  We were ushered to a corridor outside the meeting room.  There, we sat on benches side by side.  For a long time, nothing happened.  Suddenly, the meeting room door flew open and out came a man, dressed in dishdash and headgear like almost all the locals, he had a stoop which seemed to aid him in his requirement to speed along the corridor into the inner areas of Government House.  For twenty minutes, he came back and forth at high speed.  He was nicknamed “Roadrunner”.

Eventually, we were let in to the meeting room.  It was quite large and decorated ornately in Arab fashion.  There was lots of gold and scarlet drapes.  We were shown the two armchairs that would be occupied by the Sheik and the Prince.  We set up camera and lights accordingly.

After a while, the Sheik and the Prince entered.  We filmed them talking for a while, we got a few close ups of each and that was all we wanted.

When we finished, we left the room and left our camera equipment behind, not wishing to make a fuss while the two VIPs were talking serious business.

Eventually, we were able to get our gear and then set up outside to film the departure of the Prince.  When he had gone, Sheik Isa looked over towards us and gave a slight nod.

We had plenty of other things to do.  We filmed in the girls’ school which had been opened in 1929, the boys’ school opened in 1928 and the hospital in Manama, the capital.

We filmed the Bahrain Aluminium Company’s smelter, one of the largest in the Middle East.  We then went off to film the huge ship repair yard, big enough to take the largest tankers.

We even went to see to film the prawn fishermen at work.  Back on shore, we went into the processing plant where the prawns were shelled packed and frozen.

Derek Shepherd came away with a two pound pack of prawns.  These went straight into the refrigerator at the hotel.

We visited a stud farm where they bred fine Arab horses. We filmed some land reclamation which was identical to the method we had seen in Abu Dhabi.

We filmed in the Bahrain television station which was still being run by ex-pats.  It all looked rather old hat.

Yussuf’s boss, the Minister of Information, insisted that we film the Satellite Ground Station which dated from 1969.  I pointed out that almost every Arab country already had such a station and that Bahrain’s was not the first.  “But, it’s ours” he said.  Well, there’s no answer to that.

We were told that Bahrain, probably, has the largest prehistoric cemetery in the world. We went off into the desert to find it.

What we were confronted with was a scene of burial mounds that stretched as far as the eye could see.  It looked like a collection of giant molehills.

There are an estimated 170,000 mounds dating back to between 3000 BC and 600 AD. Each of these mounds covers a stone built chamber which formed the grave.  They are attributed to the Dilmun people who inhabited the island at that time.

Few of these are intact today, many having been looted way back in the past, or destroyed over the years. The best preserved of the mounds were at A’ali village.

The present Arab population of Bahrain do not believe that they have any common ancestry with the Dilmun people and elements within the present Government believe that the mounds should be bulldozed and have houses built over them

They do have a point when one considered the vast area that the mounds occupy in the Island.  There must come a time when more land is needed in a country that has grown in the last fifty years.  I have no doubt that where we filmed in the desert in the late seventies is now fully developed with businesses and housing.

Dry dock

Dry dock

One of the most impressive locations we filmed was that of the great dry dock, probably, at that time, the largest in the whole of the Arabian Gulf.   It was based in the north-east of the island and was operated by the Arab Shipbuilding and Repair Yard Company, ASRY.   It could handle the large oil tankers and while we were there filming ,they were renovating a huge ship that seemed to be, at least, a hundred metres long.  Powerful jets were blasting the side of the ship revealing the original colour of the hull.

John Barnard went off in a Bahraini Military Aircraft to film some aerials.  This was John’s forte and he produced some of the finest aerials I had ever seen.   The next time I saw similar quality work was after the introduction of the steadi-cam which was slung beneath a helicopter and which compensated for the movement of the aircraft.  The shots from these devices are now commonplace in TV shows like C.S.I.  They flew to the extreme south of the island which all sand dunes, the scene as the dunes met the sea was like something from another planet

The next day, we were in our “mad dogs” mode again.  Without transport, we were walking through villages towards the centre of the island.  The temperature was 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity was 95 %.  At lunchtime, it was getting rather hot and damp and we were hungry.  Walking through a small village, we came across an Arab bakery.  The open oven faced on to the street.

A huge fire heated the clay oven and the bakers were kneading the dough, flattening it and then throwing it up on to the roof of the oven where is stuck until it cooked.  When they fell down, they were ready.  We ordered one each.  They were more like a large Nan bread rather that a Pitta.  The baker handed them over to us and would not take any money for them. What nice people.  We walked off down the road feeding ourselves on the delicious bread straight from the oven.

Derek Shepherd at the dry docks

Derek Shepherd at the dry docks

Derek Shepherd, as was his wont, had been making himself known to others in the hotel  and anywhere else we happened to be.  Being a flyer, he was very interested in some ex-patriot families who were headed by pilots and cabin crew of Gulf Air.

They told him that that had a club where, on a Saturday night, there was a shindig at which there was an ample supply of beer and entertainment.  The crew were invited to join them.  It was some way out of town, but it was a typical English colonial club.  Very successful night.  Derek was able to talk aeroplanes all night.

We completed shooting in Bahrain and went home.  When we boarded the aircraft for the return journey, Derek handed over his bag of prawns to the cabin staff to put into their refrigerator.  By the time we reached London, he had forgotten all about them.   Next day, they were delivered to the office by taxi with the compliments of Gulf Air.

In the post production of the film, I had a problem concerning the causeway.  I needed a map of Bahrain and the Saudi coast to show where it would be going when complete.
I thought “what about a satellite picture ?

I phoned Miss Jones, my contact in NASA at Cape Canaveral.  She told me that they had the precise picture at their offices in London and they gave me the contact there.
The NASA man in London was not happy about lending me the picture.  It was four foot by three and was valued at £2,000.  I insured it immediately and then we got the photo delivered.  It was remarkable.  Taken from 168 miles above the earth, it showed cars parked at Dahran International Airport and the flames of the burn-offs in the nearby oilfields.

We were told after we had returned to London that work had started on the causeway as early as 1968, but we saw no signs of it and we were not invited to film any activity concerning the causeway.

We filmed the photo and then superimposed the causeway, it was perfect.  It would be eight years before the causeway was finally opened in 1986.

The Bahrainis liked the film.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2010.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For other articles about UPITN click here.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I spent much of my childhood days on the Sheik’s beach and I loved it!

    April 11, 2013

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