Movie review

'Jerusalem' traces that city's pivotal role in major religions


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Jerusalem is holy ground for many of the world's faithful -- those who live there and those who yearn to make the pilgrimage. That's the city that the IMAX film "Jerusalem" reveals -- not the conflict-torn capital many see it as.

"Jerusalem" opens today at Carnegie Science Center's Rangos Omnimax Theater, where it will run for several months.

The film explores what it calls the "gateway to God" for Judaism, Islam and Christianity. For those who want to see the Holy Land but aren't able to, "Jerusalem" offers the next best thing. There are segments devoted to some of the world's most sacred places, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- the site where Jesus was believed to have been buried, the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, which was built around the rock from which the prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to the heavens. Segments filmed during Ramadan, Good Friday and other ceremonies capture the spiritual depth, drama and meaning of these traditions.

The film was shot in 3-D IMAX, but audiences here will see the wide-screen version at the 2-D Omnimax Theater. That doesn't diminish the power of the images. The wide-screen camera captures sweeping aerial vistas of the ancient city where monasteries cling to the sides of rugged cliffs and where the most sacred places of Abrahamic religious tradition are located.

"Jerusalem" also is a window onto contemporary daily life in a vibrant city, seen through the eyes of three young women -- one Muslim, one Jewish and one Christian.

It adds a secular and historical view with archaeologist Jodi Magness, who guides viewers through the city's many layers of history.

What the film does not do is paint a picture of a conflict-torn city, although it acknowledges it.

"One of the goals was to get people to look at Jerusalem and the Holy Land in a new light, in a light that was more nuanced than Team Israel versus Team Palestine and vice versa. I think a lot of the nuance gets lost with the media coverage, which is really only political," said "Jerusalem" director, writer and producer Daniel Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson has worked on several IMAX films, including "Journey to Mecca," "Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France" and "Lost Worlds: Life in the Balance."

"We wanted to open that up and look at the roots of the universal attachment to the city -- not just people are fighting and here's what it looks like, but why are they fighting? Why do they love the city? Why do they all hold it dear?

"I wanted to look at what it's like for someone growing up in the city [and] having a daily life there. I wanted to do something that ran counter to this perception that it is constant conflict and tension. The conflict is omnipresent, and it is there in the film by virtue of the fact that these three girls live side by side and don't have any natural opportunity to interact."

The film holds out hope that their generation could be the one that begins to break through those barriers.

"The truth is that place has a long way to go and those three girls have a long way to go, especially when it comes to prejudices and stereotypes and the history they've inherited," Mr. Ferguson said. "I don't know if it's possible for this generation, but I wanted to try and suggest that it is in their hands."

Mr. Ferguson made several trips to Jerusalem and lived there for six months, along with his wife and then-4-year-old daughter, which gave him a solid personal connection to the city and its inhabitants.

"I had to live there. There was no other way to make this film," he said. "There wasn't a weekend where we weren't invited to someone's house for dinner."

"Jerusalem" took five years to make. Gaining access to locations was an act of diplomacy in itself: Clearance to film the aerial shots in a no-fly zone from a low-flying helicopter took eight months, and filming in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre required permission from six different church bodies.

It was worth the effort. The aerial shots are as uplifting as the film's careful exploration of spiritual belief and faith.

"It might just be a 10-second shot, and yet that image will stay with you," Mr. Ferguson said. "That's what I love about the power of these giant screen films. Their images are so indelible."

The human element was crucial to the film and filling the wide screen effectively with these kinds of scenes presented another kind of challenge, Mr. Ferguson said.

"One of the things I don't think the wide screen does very well is intimacy. We do spectacle very well. If you just had the scope and the history, it would feel like this daunting place that would seem almost cold and horrific because of all the bloodshed that it's seen. We had to bring it down to this human level so that people could feel like they saw it from someone's perspective. Otherwise it's just a tourist movie, a destination movie."

The film's website includes narrated and self-guided virtual 3-D tours of several sites highlighted in the film, including Gethsemane, the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock and Mount Zion: jerusalemthemovie.com.


Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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