Monday, September 15, 2014

Jerusalem: Engaging overview of a remarkable city

Jerusalem (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Unrated, suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Israel could use some positive buzz these days, and this reverential National Geographic/IMAX documentary is just what the doctor ordered.

The Dome of the Rock
Director/co-writer Daniel Ferguson’s thoughtful film eschews overt political content, instead concentrating on the history of this holiest of cities, and the spiritual pull that has made it so important, for so long, to Jews, Muslims and Christians. At the same time, Ferguson and co-scripter Sheila Curran Bernard slyly add an inclusive message by having three teenagers — one from each faith — share their respective impressions of the city they call home.

It’s a clever ploy, more so because three young women — Revital Zacharie, Farah Ammouri and Nadia Tadros — have been selected to speak plainly and earnestly about their devotion to faiths that haven’t always been that respectful of their gender. Each of these teens serves as a guide through portions of their particular Jerusalem, their narrative, off-camera observations quite heartfelt.

These aren’t actresses, although all three make charming subjects as cinematographer Reed Smoot’s massive IMAX cameras follow them through bustling markets and tightly packed corridors, and into temples, churches and mosques. That said, Zacharie makes the strongest impression, particularly during a brief scene shared with her grandfather, a Jewish scholar who has written numerous books on Jerusalem’s history.

Mostly, though, you’ll be awed — even left breathless — at the sights unveiled within this film. Smoot favors gentle, sweeping pans and slowly tracking close-ups, scenes seamlessly fading into each other.

Those familiar with the sheer size and complexity of IMAX camera gear will wonder precisely how Ferguson and Smoot managed to get many of these shots, notably those in especially tight quarters. Patience obviously played a factor as well; the press notes speak of the constant need to liaise with various religious, political and community authorities.

One stunning sequence — the “Ceremony of the Holy Fire,” which takes place annually on Orthodox Holy Saturday within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — was obtained only after securing permission from the six churches with custodial authority: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Latin Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox.

The results justify whatever effort was required. During scarcely a minute, we’re overwhelmed by a ritual that is both solemn and joyous, as all the assembled pilgrims do their best to ignite their individual torches from the “divine light” that emerges from Jesus’ traditional tomb.

This is but one of many, many stops along the way, Ferguson packing considerable detail into his 45-minute film. High points include the Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the first Friday of Ramadan; the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross), on Good Friday; and the Western Wall, during the Passover Priestly Blessing. These events are densely, even overwhelmingly packed with worshipers: a jaw-dropping reminder of the number of people — residents and visitors — constantly packed into the Old City’s tiny square mile.

No less stunning are the locales bereft of people: underground quarries and tombs that silently speak volumes about the many cultures, over millennia, that occupied, demolished and resurrected each “new” Jerusalem, only — in turn — to be shunted aside by the next wave of invaders.

Narrator Benedict Cumberbatch — our beloved modern Sherlock Holmes, and perfect for this assignment — contemplates the obvious question: Why this city, this location? What’s so special about it, particularly to a troika of faiths with a long history of wary tolerance at best, and open hostility at worst?

The answers are complex, but Ferguson and Bernard supply a satisfying sense of the situation. Much concerns the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine built over a sacred stone believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. Jews, in turn, believe that rock to be the very place where Abraham demonstrated his faith in God by preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac.

And, as if that weren’t enough, the Dome also is believed to have been built atop the site of both Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple.

From left, Nadia Tadros, Farah Ammouri and Revital Zacharie
These ancient, long-gone structures are revived on screen via the magic of CGI images based on historic record and archaeological evidence: While imposing, that technological sleight-of-hand can’t compare to the extraordinary splendor of the Dome of the Rock itself, which we’re privileged to enter (Ferguson’s crew being one of very few granted permission to film inside).

But practical considerations are equally important, when considering where to erect a holy city. An additional clue is supplied by archaeologist Jodi Magness, a professor at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill who has participated on 20 different excavations in Israel and Greece. We’re granted a glimpse of one such site, marveling at the notion of so many layers of previous civilizations built one atop the previous.

Magness also leads a tour group through Jerusalem’s other miracle: Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a curving, 533-meter-long aqueduct excavated through solid rock beneath the city in what is believed to have been the late 9th or early 8th century BCE, which has supplied fresh water from the nearby Gihon Spring for thousands of years.

And, once again, we wonder: How the heck did they get the IMAX cameras down there?

Simply amazing.

We come away with a thoughtful balance of information: a striking sense of the ancient rituals still observed during each Passover, Easter and Ramadan; along with the three girls’ uncomplicated (and nonjudgmental) discussion of what it’s like to live in today’s Jerusalem, as members of families with long-standing ties to the city.

Casual viewers likely will take for granted Smoot’s many establishing shots of the city itself, little realizing how much effort was required to secure permits to film while flying at low altitude over the Old City: something that hadn’t been done in more than 20 years.

Yes, obviously, Ferguson’s documentary serves as a plea for peace and mutual tolerance. Although Zacharie, Ammouri and Tadros reside within the same city, each girl acknowledges the somewhat bewildering fact that their respective sections of Jerusalem remain insulated from each other. We see numerous examples of cheerful people joyously celebrating their respective holidays, essentially oblivious to similar festivals taking place perhaps no more than a few neighborhoods away geographically, but likely a million miles away spiritually.

“Every stone in Jerusalem has many stories,” observe this film’s producers, in their press notes. “The collective power of all these stories makes the city so endearing to billions of people. We believe that the images and stories in this film will allow our audience a unique window into the lives of others.”

If only it were that simple.

But Ferguson and his IMAX team certainly deserve credit for a sincere, quietly contemplative documentary that should give viewers much to discuss.

No comments:

Post a Comment