Mleiha Archaeological Centre-1638172642363
Mleiha Archaeological Centre. Image Credit: National Geographic

Whether you’ve called the United Arab Emirates your home forever or you’re a transient guest, it’s undeniable to everyone that the country is a modern wonder. But a bird’s-eye view may be just what you needed to see the real story behind what is really an ancient civilisation.

Coinciding with the UAE’s 50th National Day, National Geographic is launching ‘The Emirates From Above’ — the latest instalment in its ‘From Above’ documentary series — that uses cutting-edge aerial cinematography to take an in-depth look at some of the UAE’s most iconic landmarks.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Image Credit: National Geographic

Premiering at Expo 2020 Dubai on December 1, before airing on National Geographic and National Geographic Abu Dhabi on December 2, ‘The Emirates From Above’ highlights places across the UAE including the Dubai Frame, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Camelicious, Mleiha Archaeological Centre, Al Ain Oasis, Qasr Al Hosn, Expo 2020 Dubai and Sir Bani Yas Island.

The global special is narrated by award- winning actor Jeremy Irons — most famous for voicing and bringing to life Scar in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ (1994). The documentary will also be released in Arabic on free-to-air channel National Geographic Abu Dhabi across the Middle East, featuring narration by well-known Emirati actor, producer and TV presenter Saoud Al Kaabi.

Jeremy Irons-1582352150463
Jeremy Irons. Image Credit: Reuters

What’s truly striking about the 44-minute documentary, however, is how it seamlessly manages to blend UAE’s futuristic aspirations with a special focus on its past. Whether it’s the ancient falaj irrigation system that still nourishes Al Ain’s ecosystem or the conservation efforts at Sir Bani Yas Island or the Stone-Age artefacts revealed at the Mleiha Archaeological site, the UAE is still a place steeped in rich history.

Importance of heritage

Pearl Diving-1638172645995
A view of a pearl diving boat. Image Credit: National Geographic

But the biggest challenge, according to director Johnny Shipley, was cherry-picking the stories that would make it into the documentary, which runs at a tight time frame.

“The massive challenge is that how do you try and encapsulate a country in a film within an hour, and then also within each story, you’re trying to represent different things,” said Shipley in a Zoom conversation. “What I think has been amazing is the recent transformation in the last 50 years, obviously which we are celebrating this year, but also then the transformation even before that — the Emirati people or the people before who lived in the region, and really charting that. And what was very evident very quickly was the importance of heritage in the UAE, even though it’s such a futuristic place. So the film is trying to reflect kind of both the history, the present day, and also the way the country is really reframing and adapting to the future, and then trying to find that balance of stories that we were constantly working with.”

Also speaking with us about the documentary was producer Carolyn Payne, who previously worked on documentaries such as the Emmy-nominated ‘Inside North Korea’s Dynasty’ and ‘911: One Day in America’, along with other ‘From Above’ films.

“I suppose one obvious thing to say is, the series is called ‘From Above’, and the way into all of the stories is through drone photography,” said Payne. “So when we chose all of the key stories, each one has to be something that is visually stunning. So the way that we talk about the stories is Johnny and the team send in like some photographs, usually from above, and you can see that something from above looks glorious, or that is a new angle. So the first filter is, can it tell you a story about the country? Can it be part of that patchwork of how we talk about the country? And then the other part is, is it visually stunning from above?”

Drone footage

The Frame-1638172618385
The Frame. Image Credit: National Geographic

The main feature of any ‘From Above’ series is, like Payne said, the drone photography. And while Payne and Shipley worked on the project completely remotely owing to the pandemic, they had a team of five on ground to carry out their vision.

“‘Emirates from Above’ was mainly filmed from the drone camera. And then the camera that we do cut to occasionally is a GoPro to give those more intimate shots. Because you’re trying again to find that balance. And obviously with drone shots, there’s a limit to how close you can get to things. So to try and provide that slightly more intimate feel, [we used the GoPro],” Shipley.

“I wasn’t actually on location and this was extraordinary given that it was the time of the pandemic, so I think we had about five people on location. When the drone’s flying, there’s the pilot and then the person operating the camera — so there’s a two-person team. But then we also had like assistants and people managing sound and obviously the interviews as well. So, yeah, there are five of them travelling around the country,” added Shipley.

The film was shot within two to three months, with filming beginning in mid-February. But like all productions, the shoot suffered a couple of delays. And while initially, they wanted to wrap filming before Ramadan, some of it did spill over. Then there’s also the challenge of filming in the torrid heat of the UAE summer. “Drones don’t like it when it’s hot. So we were trying to get all of it done while the drones could still fly,” said Johnny

When asked about their favourite stories that made the cut for the documentary, Shipley perked up. “Well, I quite like animals. [Laughs.] And the camel farm is the one that I was keen on doing. And, because we’re talking about filming with drones, the farm was right next to a military airfield. So usually, you wouldn’t be able to go anywhere near that. But, thankfully, we had a really great Dubai-based drone company who negotiated with the MOD [Ministry of Defense]. So we had quite exclusive access, because, as far as we know, it’s never been filmed from above before.”

“And then the other one I really loved was the conservation story and learning about the oryx,” added Shipley. “Obviously, the oryx being the national animal of the Emirates, is treasured. But what was really interesting was seeing [the story] from Sheikh Zayed’s time — the challenges he faced from 50 years ago around the time of the founding, and then really pioneering or spearheading the conservation efforts that are continuing even today.”

For Payne, the answer was more straightforward. “My actual favourite bit is the before-and-after photos, when you see how the city has grown, or when you’ve got like a photo from the 50s, and then you see progress made today — that I think is awesome.”

Don’t miss it!

‘The Emirates from Above’ will premiere at Al Forsan Park, Expo 2020 Dubai, on December 1 at 7pm and is open to all guests with valid Expo 2020 Dubai entrance tickets. The documentary will also air on National Geographic and National Geographic Abu Dhabi on December 2 at 10am across the Middle East, with repeats at 3pm and 9pm (UAE). The anticipated special will also air in 33 languages, in 120 countries on National Geographic.