The first documentary to feature IMAX footage of Jerusalem began an open-ended run at the Franklin Institute, covering the city's larger-than-life past, present and future on a screen that's four-and-a-half stories high.
“How did half of the people on earth come to cherish the same tiny space?”
The question of how Jerusalem became the focal point of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been asked countless times over the centuries, yet never quite like it is currently being posed at the Franklin Institute. Sonorously intoned by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch and spoken over a sometimes-vertiginous panorama of the city, the question is at the heart of the documentary Jerusalem.
The 45-minute film, the first to feature IMAX footage of Jerusalem, began an exended run at the Franklin Institute’s Tuttleman IMAX Theater on Jan. 5. As befits a work being shown on a screen that is over four stories high and 70 feet across, the film covers the larger-than-life past, present and future of the city, from the First and Second Temples to the Dome of the Rock, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, from Abraham to Armenians.
But this is no CliffsNotes travelogue covering the greatest hits of historical and religious Jerusalem. And that is by design, according to the film’s writer and director, Daniel Ferguson.
In a telephone interview, the 40-year-old Canadian, who is not Jewish but was a religious studies major at McGill University, emphasized that he gave serious thought to passing on the project when it was offered to him. The historical scope of Jerusalem “was one of the reasons I didn’t want to do the film — it’s sheer folly! By the time you hit the Crusades, you’re exhausted,” he said. “I was also kind of wary of taking it on, partially because what would I have to say that was new about Jerusalem? What belongs on an IMAX screen?”
The answer, as it turns out, was “everything.” Thanks to deep pockets — the film cost a reported $8 million to make; sustained tenacity — the five-year production process included three years to secure permission to shoot inside Al Aksa mosque; and the combined imprimatur of the IMAX format, distribution partner National Geographic and a host of American museums already signed on to show it, Ferguson had unprecedented access to shoot the city.
“It took a year just to get permission to fly helicopters over the city — it hadn’t been done in 25 years,” said Ferguson, who moved his family to Jerusalem during production. The result of that perseverance includes breathtaking visuals like Passover prayers at the Kotel, Ramadan processions through the Old City and the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
But Jerusalem is much more than an oversized video postcard. Ferguson delves into the history of the city, providing fascinating background on the Jebusites, the Canaanite tribe that, according to the Bible, founded the city, and how even hashetiya, the Foundation Stone where Isaiah supposedly said that God laid the foundation for the world, and which is now covered by the Dome of the Rock, has served as a touchstone for Jews and Muslims through the centuries.
While Ferguson knew that securing the right images of Jerusalem would be essential to his film, he focused just as intently on how to personalize the journey for viewers.
“Authenticity is so important in these IMAX films,” he said. “We do spectacle so well, but there is such humanity in that city, and oftentimes it gets lost in conflict and politics.”
The film, which had its world premiere in Canada in 2013, does indeed make references to the Israeli-Arab conflict as a way to establish context, but Ferguson chose to provide glimpses of life in the city through the eyes of three teenage girls living there.
He follows the daily routines of Revital Zacharie, a recent graduate of the city’s Pelech High School, an innovative school for Orthodox girls; Nadia Tadros, an Israeli Arab who is studying at Birzeit University in the West Bank; and Farah Ammouri, a Christian who recently graduated from Jerusalem’s Rosary Sisters High School. By doing so, Ferguson gives the film a trio of thoughtful, young voices that provide a counterpoint to both Cumberbatch’s narration and the scholarly musings of Jodi Magness, a University of North Carolina archaeology professor who provides historical viewpoints and is the documentary’s other main voice.
“We tried to make the film about custodial families at first,” Ferguson said, referring to the families who have been responsible for maintaining the city’s landmarks for generations. “But it was very adult, very serious and very somber. I kept meeting young people in the city, and myself and the producers finally said, ‘What about kids?’ The museums loved the idea that the film would be told from the point of view of kids, and we found 15 to 18 was the ideal age bracket — they are questioning a lot, like their place in the world, their religious geography.”
Following a process he jokingly called “Jerusalem Idol,” that saw countless young people respond to the production’s Hebrew and Arabic ads on Facebook, he found his three protagonists, each of whom provides a polemic-free, slightly Rashomon-like take on the city. They each weave their own family histories into the history of the region as they walk along the streets freighted with their past and present.
Even though they are shown individually walking down the same paths, there is no point in the film where the three teens meet. Ferguson did film them meeting near Robinson’s Arch at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount — “as a director, you’re an idiot if you don’t try to film them together,” he explained — but to no avail. The ensuing conversation felt stilted and forced, he recalled. Having a hometown in common wasn’t enough to break down the barriers of religion and society, at least in that setting.
As a coda, Ferguson related what happened when the girls were flown to the film’s premiere.
“Within a couple days, they had genuine interactions,” he enthused. “It was an amazing cross-cultural exchange as they were exchanging clothes and doing each other’s makeup. It’s no guarantee of anything in the future, but it was a real moment.”