Film programme: Yesterday Was Like This in Dubai

Yesterday Was Like This in Dubai

A film programme curated by Hind Mezaina, in the framework of the exhibition ‘Off Centre/On Stage’ at Jameel Arts Centre. 

The programme features a selection of films from the 1950s to the 2000s, ranging from corporate documentaries to artists’ films, including one TV promotional clip. 

‘Yesterday Was Like This in Dubai’ invites viewers to look at how the UAE, and especially Dubai, has been filmed, and to consider the accompanying narrative and common tropes that have carried on over the past six decades.

Title image: Still from Pearls of the Persian Gulf: Dubai, Kamran Shirdel, 1975.

These Are the Trucial States

World Wide Pictures
1958, documentary, 14 min
In Arabic with English subtitles
Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London

Pearls of the Persian Gulf: Dubai
Kamran Shirdel
1975, documentary, 39 min
In Farsi with English subtitles
Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Back in Dubai: Promotional video for the 27th World Chess Olympiad – Dubai ‘86
FIDE International Chess Federation
1986, promotional film, 4 min
In English

Between Two Banks
Nujoom Al-Ghanem
1999, documentary, 17 min
In Arabic with English subtitles
Courtesy of the artist and Nahar Productions

Trypps #5 (Dubai)
Ben Russell
2008, experimental film, 3 min
Courtesy of the artist

Yesterday Was Like This in Dubai

by Hind Mezaina

The city of Dubai projects an image of perpetual change and newness, and a look to the future—a narrative that dates back to the 1950s. But just as things change, much remains the same: the way the city is marketed; the way it is represented and packaged as a holiday destination, as a business opportunity, or as a home. If history repeats itself, then so does the story of Dubai.

The depiction of Dubai in film—be it cinema, advertising, or even music videos—includes recurrent tropes and motifs that reinforce certain stereotypes, often with little or no nuance.

One of the first films to feature Dubai, even before the establishment of the United Arab Emirates, is These Are the Trucial States (1958). Shot between 1957 and 1958, this short documentary—funded and produced by the British government, and filmed by World Wide Pictures, a British production company—is a propaganda film with clear references to but also explicit departures from earlier decades of colonial cinema.

Pitched by Peter Tripp, Political Agent in the Trucial States, who was stationed in Dubai at the time, These Are the Trucial States is narrated in Arabic but was initially scripted in English by him. It highlights the different emirates—with Dubai already being hailed as a centre of trade—and showcases the leaders of each, depicting an idyllic image of harmonious living. In parallel, the film documents the development of infrastructure, including health, education, transportation and accommodation—then paid for by the British government—for a prosperous future. Further reading about this film can be found in Todd Reisz’s book Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai.

A similar narrative, albeit from a non-Western gaze, can be seen in the visually rich 1975 documentary Pearls of the Persian Gulf: Dubai by Kamran Shirdel, one of Iran’s most influential documentary filmmakers. In the early 1970s, Shirdel travelled around the Gulf making documentaries about the changes that the region was undergoing, having been commissioned by the Iranian Ministry of Culture. In Dubai, he documents the development of the city and shows Dubai’s ruler at the time, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and his son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s current ruler. Despite Shirdel’s close access to the leaders, a scene where a man walks towards the camera and asks to stop filming a private banquet is a reminder of the controlled narrative of the city. The title of this film programme, ‘Yesterday Was Like This in Dubai,’ is taken from this film

Promotional films in the form of music videos are perhaps a lighter and even more digestible way to market a city, similar to the even shorter promo videos we see on social media, produced by the likes of Visit Dubai and by hired influencers and celebrities.

Played on Dubai TV’s Channel 33, Back in Dubai (1986) was a promotional video produced for the 27th World Chess Olympiad, held between November 14 and December 2, 1986, at the World Trade Centre in Dubai. 

Featuring the song Back in Dubai (1978) by Sal Davis and the lyrics below, the video is a supercut of the best of the city, including the skyline of the city’s then-downtown, Deira, as well as many motifs that are still present. It is not very different from the video that is played on Emirates airline flights before landing in Dubai.

   Back in Dubai
   There’s a sun
   And it shines there all the time
   Going home
   To the smiles
   On the faces of kids who remind me
   Dubai is mine

A more personal reflection on the city and its transformations can be seen in one of Nujoom Al-Ghanem’s early short films from 1999. Between Two Banks is about Khamees Marzooq, one of the last remaining rowing boatmen transporting passengers on Dubai Creek, whose boats would eventually be replaced by the newer and faster motorboats.

A more contemporary rumination about Dubai is told through a three-minute silent still frame of a flickering neon shop sign in Trypps #5 (Dubai) (2008) by the artist and filmmaker Ben Russell. The missing letters of the word “happy” become a poignant encapsulation of all that is present and absent or obscured in this city.


Hind Mezaina is an artist, writer and film curator. Her practice delves into themes of collective memory, the notion of heritage, and depictions of Dubai and the UAE in the media. Working primarily in analogue photography, and more recently in video, her work is part of the collections of UAE Unlimited and the Sharjah Art Foundation. Mezaina is also the founder of The Culturist blog, and the co-founder of Tea with Culture podcast. She has curated film screenings for local institutions, including Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sharjah Art Foundation and The Africa Institute; and recently published a three-part essay titled An Incomplete History of UAE Cinemas in alserkal.online.