'Jerusalem' Imax movie shows faith lived in the holy city

By Mark Pattison

Catholic News Service

11/27/2013

This is a scene from the 3-D movie "Jerusalem." The Imax film looks at the holy city through the eyes of three teenage girls, one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim, with a little help along the way from archaeologist Jodi Magness, who notes in the mov ie that Jerusalem was conquered 40 times in its 5,000-year history. (CNS photo/George Duffield, courtesy Jerusalem US LP)
This is a scene from the 3-D movie "Jerusalem." The Imax film looks at the holy city through the eyes of three teenage girls, one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim, with a little help along the way from archaeologist Jodi Magness, who notes in the movie that Jerusalem was conquered 40 times in its 5,000-year history. (CNS photo/George Duffield, courtesy Jerusalem US LP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It was only a matter a time that a city that has been writ large over the course of human history would find itself writ large on the silver screen.

And believe it when you see the words "writ large." We're talking Imax -- and 3-D, too.

The movie is called, simply, "Jerusalem," and it chronicles the pull it exerts on the three great monotheistic religions.

"Jerusalem" looks at the holy city through the eyes of three teenage girls, one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim — with a little help along the way from archaeologist Jodi Magness, who notes in the movie that Jerusalem was conquered 40 times in its 5,000 years, and that you can find artifacts of each occupation depending on how many layers you choose to dig.

The movie was an arduous task for Daniel Ferguson, who made 14 separate trips to Jerusalem over three years — and even moved his family there for six months so he could focus more on filming. Ferguson has worked in the Imax format since the 1990s, but this was the first time he directed an Imax movie; he also wrote and co-produced the film.

Before a preview screening Nov. 19 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Ferguson said he showed his script to the mayor of Jerusalem, complete with notes on the images he wanted to capture. The mayor, according to Ferguson, tossed the script on a table and laughed, "You'll be lucky to get half of this in."

Ferguson paused for a second, then told his audience at a Washington screening, "I got it all in."

Well, as much as a 45-minute film can contain. It's a nod to the constraints of "the institutional Imax format," he told Catholic News Service after the screening. He had originally wanted to do a 90-minute theatrical feature on Jerusalem, but securing screens would have been tough. "Even a movie like 'Gravity,' it sells out every evening for two or three weeks" on Imax screens, but it has to be shoved aside for the next Hollywood film. Ferguson said the best he could have hoped for with a full-length feature was some daytime weekday screenings.

But he did land some great scenes. "We were able to do aerial shooting 500 feet above ground over some of the most sensitive real estate in the world," he told the preview audience. He added he was also able to film inside the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's most sacred sites in Jerusalem — possibly the first filmmaker ever to do so.

Ferguson said he wanted his audience to come away with at least one moment where they say, "I didn't know that." Asked what his own "I didn't know that" moment was in the film, he told CNS it was the Ceremony of the Holy Fire, an Orthodox Christian rite practiced the night before Easter. "I knew about it, but only by name," he said.

"Jerusalem" captures the image of an Orthodox priest bearing a huge lit candle very close in size to the paschal candle used in Catholic churches at the Easter Vigil service, and the priest being carried on the shoulders of two stout men as he goes throughout the crowded church as worshippers seek to have their own candles lit from the flame of the priest's candle. And the congregants aren't holding slim tapers Catholics are used to holding at the Easter Vigil, but tall, thick candles themselves.

Ferguson grew up in Montreal, the son of a Lutheran mother and a Presbyterian father. As he grew older, he told CNS, he looked into other forms of worship and belief. Not having found satisfaction in any of them, he said he thought he would "settle it once and for all" by going to graduate school to study systematic theology at McGill University in Montreal.

He got the degree, but "Jerusalem" shows Ferguson's spiritual quest is not yet finished. He said he filmed parts of East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem for his movie, but later decided to stick with the one-square-mile "old city" with its Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters.

Part of the reason was the 45-minute time constraint, but part of it was the region's near-intractable politics. "If I show (Israeli) checkpoints, then I have to explain '67 (the year of the Six-Day War), and if I talk about '67 then I have to talk about '48," when the state of Israel was created and followed by near-instant war in the region.

"If you notice, I don't even use the words 'Israel' and 'Palestine' in the film," Ferguson said, choosing instead to focus squarely on the religious hold Jerusalem on residents and visitors alike.

As for the three girls who appear throughout the movie, the final shot has all three in the same frame. It's not a trick shot, Ferguson said, "but I had to trick them into appearing at the same time."

The girls had never met before. One of them said in the movie that perhaps it will be possible for her to meet people of the other two religions — "maybe not now, but someday."

Ferguson arranged the meeting. "It was charming and intriguing, but ultimately banal," he told CNS. Even at their young age, they had accumulated so many misperceptions and stereotypes that the conversation didn't go anywhere. "The girls didn't like it, either," he added.

Copyright (c) 2013 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops  

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It was only a matter a time that a city that has been writ large over the course of human history would find itself writ large on the silver screen.

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