ABU DHABI // In the darkness of a film digitising studio in Soho in central London, the blood drained from Graeme Wilson's face when he realised what he was watching.
On the flickering, old-fashioned 8mm film playing in front of him was a young Sheikh Zayed, more than a decade before he became the nation's first leader, laughing as he leaned over and tugged a tribesman's khandoura. "I tried not to seem too excited, because I knew the collector would charge me a lot of money for the footage, but I was stunned," said Mr Wilson, the 40-year-old managing director of Media Prima, a Dubai-based publishing company of local interest books and documentaries. "No one has ever seen footage this old before. Luckily, it was dark so the collector could not see all the blood drain from my face."
Mr Wilson would not reveal exactly how much he paid for the film but said it was "several hundred thousand dollars". "These are the kind of nuggets that you can spend your whole life searching for," he said. "When you do research on anything you want to discover things that nobody else has before. This is like gold dust in historical terms and the most amazing thing was the collector had no idea what he was holding."
He travelled to the British capital last week to collect film for a documentary he is making on the Al Maktoum family. While there, the collector showed him some old 8mm film, which he had obtained from another collector after it was found abandoned in a rubbish skip in south-west England. It turned out to be a rare and precious seven minutes. In addition to Sheikh Zayed in Al Ain, smiling and joking with his fellow tribesman, there is footage from the Al Ain airstrip and the airport in Al Bateen. Other footage shows Sheikh Zayed with Sheikh Shakhbut Al Nahyan, then ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Several seconds show a figure whom Mr Wilson believes to be Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, at 14. The teenager can be seen smiling to the camera before climbing on the back of a Land Rover in the middle of the desert. Mr Wilson believes it is the president. "He is travelling with an armed guard, which would only be reserved for royalty at that time," he said. "Also he has a Land Rover. Who else would have such a vehicle back then?"
The images have yet to be verified by officials. In total, Mr Wilson unearthed around two and a half hours of footage from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai. Other clips show a visit by Britain's Royal Navy to Abu Dhabi, farmers in Al Ain and the inauguration in 1958 of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum as leader of Dubai. The video also brings to life the capital's palace, Qasr Al Hosn, and the old Maqta crossing before any roads or oil wealth had begun to modernise the city.
The footage was invaluable for piecing together the local history of the region, said Mr Wilson. Fatima al Sayegh, a professor in UAE and Gulf history at UAE University, said the film would be a boost for efforts to collect historical items for the nation's museums and archives. "Sheikh Zayed is no longer with us so anything about him that hasn't been seen will be significant," she said. "It will be important for anyone who wants to study or research the period."
Prof al Sayegh said films were particularly valuable to researchers because of the picture of the period that they painted. "A document can describe something but a picture says a thousand words," she said. "You can see how he moved, how he interacted with people, and it's not just valuable for those interested in Zayed. Even the background footage of Abu Dhabi would be valuable." Although the UAE was undeveloped at the time, there was still a lot of interest in the area, she said.
"Journalists looking for a sensational story about the sheikhs and film makers from the West came with their cameras to explore the area, which was unheard of among many people in the West at that time," she said. How the 8mm film ended up discarded is still a mystery to Mr Wilson, because the collector in London obtained it from another source in England who told him where he had found it. "It is quite common for old films like this to be found in skips or in rubbish dumps," he said.
"They get passed down and cleared out and somehow end up discarded. "In the UK, there are people who make it their job to trawl through other people's unwanted items. But nobody, not even the London collector, could have known the importance of this film." He plans to use the new images to make a documentary about the life of Sheikh Zayed, before donating it to the Al Nahyan family. The documentary Mr Wilson intends to make is still only in its initial stages.
His next task is to identify the other people in the footage and ascertain whether any of them are still alive and remember the events. He also wants to dedicate time to search for more film from the period. "If we've found one piece then there must be more," he said. "We need to spend the time and the resources to find them." firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Loveday Morris