Voyage of Discovery
Issue 71 August 2010
Ibn Battuta’s epic journey is little known outside of the Muslim world. Sarah Joseph meets the filmmakers who set out to challenge misconceptions bout Islam by following his extraordinary journey to Makkah.
Seven hundred years ago, the great traveller Ibn Battuta set out on his epic 30 year long, 75,000 mile voyage of discovery. The journey taken by Taran Davies and Dominic Cunningham-Reid was significantly shorter in both time and distance, yet it certainly has all the elements of another heroic tale.
In 2001 Taran Davies was working part-time in the finance sector with an application pending to a business school. He was living in New York and had cycled around the World Trade Centre half an hour before the first plane hit the North Tower. He saw the second plane crash into the South Tower whilst standing four blocks away.
It was soon after that he and his friend Dominic decided to found Cosmic Picture with the single purpose of making a film focused on the Hajj – a film chronicling the epic ‘Journey to Mecca’, because Taran, since September 11th had “struggled to come up with a new idea, a more powerful approach to storytelling that might move us beyond thinking about Islam in the context of terrorism and war. As I journeyed through cities like Bukhara, Samarkand and Baku while making my earlier films, I came to realise that all the roads I was travelling led to Makkah, the most sacred of Islamic sanctuaries, yet the least known.”
With the direction set, Taran’s and Dominic’s aim was simple: to produce a film that could have an unprecedented and positive impact on relations between the Muslim and wider world. “The Hajj lies at the heart of the Islamic experience, yet few in the non-Muslim world know anything about it and a majority of Muslims will never experience it for themselves. By sharing the peaceful values and extraordinary history of the Hajj on the giant screen, we hope to encourage a better understanding of Islam in the West and foster a sense of pride and dignity amongst the Muslim community around the world.”
They decided to tell the story of the Hajj through the real journey of a historical figure, to “allow our audience, whatever their religious background, to step into the shoes of a young traveller setting out on an epic voyage in search of adventure, knowledge and the desire to participate in one of the most profound spiritual journeys on earth,” explains Taran. They therefore read the accounts of travellers, pilgrims, sages, politicians, explorers and spies who had made the journey including Ibn Jubayr, Nasr Khosraw, John Lewis Burckhardt, Sir Richard Burton and Malcom X. But it was when they came across Ibn Battuta that they knew they had found their hero. Taran puts it thus, “We were shocked to learn that this man, about whom we had never heard, had travelled three times further than Marco Polo.”
They arrived in Saudi Arabia with, by their own admission, “a Western mindset, expecting the Saudi government to jump right in and help us make this film because to us it made perfect sense for them to do so.” However, “it very soon became clear we would have to live in Riyadh to better understand the culture and how things are done. Because of the subject matter we really had to prove that our intentions were good and true, and that nobody would be embarrassed by the end result.”
Taran and Dominic spent two years in Riyadh until they eventually won the full support and enthusiasm of prominent individuals and institutions. However, only Muslims can enter the sacred precinct of Makkah and there were very few Muslims with any IMAX® film experience. Taran and Dominic (whose team had already grown to include Director, Bruce Neibaur, and Jake Eberts, as Executive Producer) teamed up with Jonathan Barker, who had been working on the IMAX® film format for over 15 years. He had worked with astronauts to get the IMAX® camera into space. Despite his great wealth of experience, Jonathan conceded that, “the Journey to Mecca is the most challenging film I’ve ever been involved in.” He brought in three Muslim cinematographers, Ghasem Ebrahimian, Afshin Javadi and Rafey Mahmood, who were flown to Los Angeles for training under the steady hand of Diane Roberts and Dave Douglas.
In addition to Jonathan, Daniel Ferguson was brought on board as Line-Producer. He was faced with the task of recruiting 80 people for the all-Muslim team to enter Makkah, “It was a bit like an obstacle course — I am told we need filmmakers with experience dealing with large crowds; good in documentary environments; multi-lingual; experienced in film (as opposed to video), but they have to be Muslim and they need a Hajj visa in time! Where do you start looking for these people? Some were young first-time filmmakers or people with no film experience whatsoever. Of the three film loaders, none had ever touched celluloid in their lives. They were medical students, geologists and academics.” Daniel came to realise that seriousness, reliability and leadership were as vital as any film-related skills. And was greatly surprised by how many women they were able to hire, “Saudi women,” says Daniel “are incredible negotiators. Among the Saudi crew, and especially the women, I found an astonishing eagerness to learn and prove themselves. So many Saudis are well educated, but bored. They saw this as a challenge and an opportunity to show the Western world what they were capable of.”...
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