It's been worshiped, fought over, conquered, destroyed and rebuilt, and it remains the sacred holy city for half the people on Earth. Now it's the subject of an eponymous 3-D IMAX movie that is playing at museums and science centers nationwide, including an engagement at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it's paired with the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition, both running through Sept. 7.
"Jerusalem is the most storied and enigmatic city on Earth. Books and films and poems and paintings and songs have been produced ad nauseam," says producer Taran Davies. "How to do it differently and bring the city and the region to an audience in a completely new and different way? IMAX and 3-D were part of that, but we also wanted to tell the story of Jerusalem from the perspective of different faiths, to be able to experience how the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities love Jerusalem. We spent a couple of years doing research, traveling to Israel on many occasions to figure out how to tell the story."
Davies ("Journey to Mecca") and co-producers George Duffield ("The End of the Line") and writer-director Daniel Ferguson, who was a line producer and story contributor on the "Mecca" IMAX film, chose three teenage girls from different faiths and communities to tell their personal stories, which are interwoven with scenes of celebrations and rituals including Passover, Easter and Ramadan. It also includes visits to excavation sites with archeologist and religious studies professor Jodi Magness as well as breathtaking vistas shot from above the city and rare glimpses of the tunnels below it.
"This film is a celebration of one of the great cities on Earth in a way you've never seen it before," says Davies. "This is a film about why the three great Abrahamic faiths attached so much importance to Jerusalem and why it has remained at the center of the world’s attention for thousands of years. We want to take you to places and immerse you in these different worlds."
Five years in the making (2009-2013), the film crew behind "Jerusalem" was the first allowed to shoot aerial footage over the Old City in more than two decades. "The Israelis have closed the airspace over Jerusalem to any low-altitude flight for obvious reasons," says Duffield, noting that they made this request before anything else, and it took almost a year to get the permit. "We thought we'd start with the hardest thing first and everything else would fall into place."
Sunset over Jerusalem. (Photo: Dustin Farrell)
To film in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tunnels below it, the producers and crew were locked inside after the church closed at 9 p.m. and couldn't leave until it opened at 6 a.m. "We slept on the stones," Davies recalls. "A few of us came up with horror film ideas, but it was a powerful spiritual experience."
Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. (Photo: Jerusalem US LP)
Before that was possible, however, producers had to get permission from six separate churches — Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Latin Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox — to plug in power cables and turn on lights. "We had to set up a week ahead," says Davies.
Showcasing the church, the Western Wall, and Al-aqsa Mosque — the three most important religious sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims — left little time for other locations in the 43-minute film. "Some of the iconic places of the Bible hit the cutting room floor," says Davies.
Even some of the narration had to go in order to let the the visuals speak for themselves. The narrator's voice will be familiar to fans of "Sherlock," "The Imitation Game" and the dragon Smaug of the "Hobbit" movies: it's Benedict Cumberbatch, who recorded his part in a London recording studio. "Most people who do narrations haven't even read the script when they turn up; they look at the page and start reading," says Duffield. "Benedict is a very clever, thoughtful person and wanted to learn about Jerusalem. He came with a list of questions."
Duffield, who spent a semester at Jerusalem's Hebrew University while attending Harvard, "saw parts of the city I had no idea existed," he says, noting that it inspired "the possibilities of telling a story from different points of view."
An IMAX camera crane over the Easter procession at Via Dolorosa. (Photo: George Duffield)
The diversity of the narrative extended to the crew as well. Numbering up to 80 depending on the sequence, it was a melting pot of cultures and religions that varied by location. "They were secular, religious, Jewish, Christian, Muslim," says Davies.
You can't tell by watching, but the film's spectacular Easter and Passover sequences were shot two years apart — the aerial footage in 2010 and on-the-ground footage in 2012 — and it was edited together. Making that process trickier were tourists and celebrants holding up iPads to take pictures, spoiling the shots. Some creative editing was necessary to cut them out.
While "Jerusalem" has played in many U.S. and international cities with more to come, the film has not yet shown in Israel. "We're waiting for an IMAX theater to be built that can show it," says Davies.
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