Three Worlds Collide in 'Jerusalem,' the City and the Film

By Ben Sutter 1-15-2014
An IMAX camera films at the Western Wall. Photo: Nicolas Ruel, courtesy Jerusalem US LP/National Geographic Society/RNS

The old city of Jerusalem is smaller than one square mile. In 5,000 years of recorded human history there have been 180 conflicts around the city. It has been conquered 44 times, and completely destroyed twice. The story of conflict in this city is clearly not a new story.

When the producers of Jerusalem, a new movie for IMAX and other giant screen theaters, decided to approach the topic, they wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the long history.

“Jerusalem is a city in conflict,” said Taran Davies, one of the producers of Jerusalem, at a recent screening of the movie. “We wanted a new way to think about it. This [movie] is more a celebration.”

In the style of many giant screen films, the flyover scenes in this film are brilliant. As the core of the cinematic experience, these majestic shots capture the beauty and density of the city and its various holy sites. When seen in 3D, these crowded market shots shine with humanity; as the camera weaves in and out of the people in the streets, the viewer begins to understand how real and tangible the city of Jerusalem is.

At the heart of the city are the holy sites of three major religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Within each of these three religions, many different interpretations are practiced today, necessitating that little more than a flyover is appropriate in a 45-minute film.

The film explores the interfaith narrative of the city, highlighting the lives and religious practices of three young women who call Jerusalem home.

Revital Zacharie showcases the Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, explaining the significance of the Western Wall, which supported Herod’s rebuild of the temple of Solomon. A magnificent day-long time-lapse displays the site continually populated with praying visitors throughout the day.

For Nadia Tadros, a Christian living in the city, the Palm Sunday procession into the city is her favorite. She wonders at how lucky she is to live in a city with holy sites that others dream of seeing their whole life. Taking a brief stop to mention the Church of the Nativity, she narrates as the film quickly transitions into the Holy Week story of the Garden of Gethsemane, where the gospels say Jesus was arrested, and the procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where tradition holds Jesus was crucified and buried.

For Muslims, Jerusalem holds significance as the land of the prophets Abraham and Jesus, as well as the location where the prophet Mohammad ascended on a ladder of light into the heavens after a pilgrimage from Mecca. For Farah Ammouri, the Dome of the Rock, the mosque built around the site where tradition holds Mohammad ascended, is the most beautiful building in Jerusalem. The building is built just above the Western Wall that is so important to Jewish heritage.

It is clear from the film that these traditions overlap and intertwine in almost miraculous ways. Each of the holy sites is built on or near the site of great significance to one of the other religions. It is no wonder that such political strife comes from such a location so revered by so many people.

"Jerusalem" trailer courtesy National Geographic.

On that point, the producers of Jerusalem avoid connection with the politics around the region. In their filmmaker’s statement, the three producers state: “Our film is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It embraces the idea that Jerusalem is many cities: imagined and real; past and present; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and secular. We are trying to answer the question: Why Jerusalem?” Davies said that the script of the film carefully avoids using either of the words “Palestine” or “Israel.”

While avoiding politics certainly must have been a difficult decision, it seems to be the right one for this film. Trying to address just the complexities of importance of the religious sites proves possible within the 45 minutes, but just barely. Adding such a difficult cultural, political, and economic topic may have done the film in. Not to mention the heightened difficulties of securing filming permits that would have accompanied a more politicized film. Jerusalem is the first film in 20 years to receive permission to fly at the low altitudes necessary to record the soaring images.

As the movie ended, Tadros stood in the middle of a Jerusalem street and articulated both the hope and pain of this region: “I hope one day we can have the courage to meet the people who are living right next to us.”

As she said this, the other two young women emerged from connecting streets in the middle of Jerusalem. Even as they appeared together on screen for the first time, all connected to the same city, the film makes it clear that there is still much work to be done in connecting the people of Jerusalem to each other.

Ben Sutter is the online assistant at Sojourners. Follow Ben on Twitter @BenSutter.

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