The transformation of the Expo 2020 Dubai site from an arid landscape to a sustainable city spanning 613 football pitches is the subject of a new documentary.
Produced in partnership with the Discovery Channel, Expo 2020: Shaping the Future shines a spotlight on the people who were vital in bringing the world's fair to life. The documentary shows what it took to build an urban centre in the desert that is capable of generating its own electricity, and could serve as a platform for cutting-edge technology and architecture from around the world.
The documentary had its premiere as part of an exclusive screening at the site on Monday. Running for 40 minutes, it is showing on Virtual Expo World and will be screening on the Discovery Channel next week in parts.
Director Jacquie Beaumont says she wanted to highlight the vision and efforts that made Expo 2020 Dubai a reality, in spite of challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“How many people know how the Expo was built or the challenges that were presented, or the architects’ vision or why the Expo was commissioned in the first place?” Beaumont says. “I hope that this film gives you a unique perspective into some of those things that you can't get just from visiting the site.”
The documentary begins with a broad stroke of the 170-year history of world expos. The first global expo was held in London in 1851. It was meant as an outlet for developers, architects and engineers from around the world to share their ideas. The expo platform would prove in helping to diffuse new inventions and ideas across the world.
As the documentary highlights, some of the greatest innovations in history were launched during world expos, from the telephone and typewriter to the mobile phone, the television set and even tomato ketchup.
The documentary then shows footage from the expo bid in Paris on November 27, 2013, when it became clear that Dubai had won and was going to be the first city in the Measa region to host the world's fair.
“It was probably one of the most exhilarating and humbling moments of my life,” Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation and Director General of Expo 2020 Dubai, says in the documentary.
“It showed us just how much the international community believed in us. But it also highlighted how much responsibility we have to all of them as well.
“We had to create the city of the future without understanding what that future would look like. We looked at our master plan and we changed it and then we changed it. Navigating through so much ambiguity has been the greatest challenge, but also it’s given us the opportunity to reimagine and to dream.”
The documentary then expands on the historical significance of the Expo 2020 Dubai logo and its visual reference to the 4,000-year-old gold ring unearthed at Saruq Al Hadid archeological site in 2002. It also shows how the ring’s pattern influenced the design of Al Wasl Dome and details the challenges the construction crew faced as they tried to build its 130-metre-high steel trellis.
“We built the crown on the ground and then put the sides at the same time,” Ahmed Al Khatib, Chief Development and Delivery Officer at Expo 2020 Dubai, says in the documentary.
The dome features thousands of pieces of structural steel and 197 elements added together. Precision was essential, especially as the dome was set a mere four metres from the next building.
“For something with this level of precision, we had a point five millimetre margin of error,” Al Khatib says. “I don’t think a piece of jewellery has that margin of error. This was never done before in terms of an architectural piece."
Beaumont first visited the Expo 2020 Dubai site in February 2020. Construction was midway, but enough of the project had materialised for Beaumont to grasp its scale and reach.
“I immediately thought, 'Wow, this is big',” she says. “It was a bit overwhelming.”
Beaumont knew early on she wanted to focus on the human perspective, to interview the architects, builders and organisers tasked with building the site before the looming 2020 deadline. The pavilions, the thematic petal districts and Al Wasl Dome had already taken shape when the pandemic struck and construction came to a screeching halt. At that point, Beaumont says, new angles to the story emerged.
“From the initial treatment that I submitted early on to make this film, the pandemic really changed the content,” she says. “There wasn’t really a focus on health and wellness in the original film.”
The documentary highlights the health measures and wellness programme that was put in place to ensure the safety of workers on site, including a scheme using wearable technology designed to collect essential physiological data. According to the documentary, “the voluntary scheme attracted more than 5,500 participants”.
As the pandemic postponed the Expo by a year, the documentary was also delayed. Filming began as stay-at-home measures eased and work on the Expo resumed. However, as travel restrictions were still in place, Beaumont couldn’t fly to Dubai for the first phase of the shoot, and had to direct from abroad instead.
“We were meant to come in August but couldn’t,” she says. “I managed to get some interviews by the team here under my direction from London. Once we got to September, travel was allowed. I came for the first time to film about two weeks before the opening.”
As a filmmaker coming from the outside in, Beaumont says she was almost like the audience herself, finding things out about the event for the first time while filming. The documentary, she says, hopes to impart that feeling of wonder and hint at the event’s “global ripples”.
“It’s not about Dubai, not just about the here and now,” she says. “This has actually affected people all over the world. And that's really inspiring, especially in the current times that we live in, to think that people's lives are being improved because of this is a real testament to what they've done here and a testament to Dubai.”