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Exclusive: Daniel Ferguson Talks IMAX Film 'Jerusalem'

Director chats with Shalom Life about putting a giant spotlight on the Holy Land

By: Ilan Mester
Published: October 25th, 2013 in Culture » Film » Interviews
Daniel FergusonPic: Photo cortesy of ClutchPR

Filmmaker Daniel Ferguson had one main goal for his new movie, Jerusalem: challenge people's assumptions about the Holy Land. The director of IMAX's latest feature says he was astonished when he saw the historic city for the first time and he hopes to bring that same feeling to viewers. Shalom Life chats with the director-producer about the concept for the film came about, the challenges of making an IMAX movie and what surprised him most about Jerusalem.

There are so many cities in the world. Why did you choose to spotlight Jerusalem?

The idea for Jerusalem came from Taran Davies, who produced “Journey to Mecca”. He approached me in 2008 with the idea to do something about the intersection of the three Abrahamaic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). I actually studied comparative religions, so I loved the idea that we could explore the same place from different points of view. George Duffield (our other producer) knew Jerusalem well, but to Taran and me it was entirely new and rather overwhelming at first. IMAX and giant screen movies generally don’t focus on a single city. They do countries and regions, but cities can rarely justify being on 70 ft high screens. Jerusalem is different. It’s unlike any other place on earth. There is so much curiosity about this part of the world and unfortunately so much misinformation. It is one of those “bucket list” destinations, yet so few actually make the trip due to perceived security risks. Much of Western Civilization has its foundations here. Many of our present-day conflicts and beliefs and values are derived from stories and events that took place here millennia ago. In the case of Jerusalem, you start to see why so many different cultures considered it the center of the world. In many ways, perhaps it still is…

What was your first reaction when you saw the city for the first time?

I had spent months preparing for my first trip (in 2009) by reading everything I could get my hands on. Nothing really prepares you for the “real Jerusalem”. Everyone arrives with images in their minds, informed by the media, by romantic Orientalist paintings, by poetry and popular songs, by the Bible, etc. I think my first reaction was astonishment at the small size of the Old City and the proximity of the major religious sites. You don’t get that from books or television.

What surprised you the most about Jerusalem?

The major shock for me was the diversity of cultures that call Jerusalem home. The city is so full of life and it is not at all a museum. You see people practicing thousand-year old rituals in their own way. Jerusalem takes all your assumptions about humanity, about the relationship between the modern and the ancient world and forces you to reconsider them. After the first week, I foolishly thought I understood it and then by the second week, I realized I probably never would. The most pleasant surprise was how welcoming people were. Amid the conflict and anxiety surrounding the place, I found it incredibly warm and inviting. I was hosted by Jewish families nearly every Shabbat (Friday) dinner, went to synagogue, broke fast with Muslim families during Ramadan and had Easter or Christmas dinners with Christians. I feel privileged to have seen all these different Jerusalems – something sadly few of the residents get to do.

IMAX movies typically play for years and years. How challenging was it to make a film that could stand the test of time?

Because Jerusalem has been filmed and written about so much, it was essential to do something novel, to avoid the buzz words and clichés. In some cases, it was a matter of finding a new way to film something everyone thinks they know. It was also important that the science and archaeology in the film be up to date. Knowing the film will play for five to 10 years in museums, we avoided anything that might date us, especially politics. Our film is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is about the roots of universal attachment to this space, told through different points of view. We tied the production schedule to key moments in the Jerusalem calendar: Passover, Easter, Ramadan and the peak archaeological dig season so the viewer gets to experience moments of real spectacle. These events are timeless as are the emotional connections people have to the holy places.

Related articles: Jerusalem, Imax, movie Israel, Daniel Ferguson, interview, film, documentary, Holy Land
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