A new perspective on Jerusalem


By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

It all begins with a large rock — both the story of the city of Jerusalem and the new 3D IMAX film “Jerusalem,” which opens Oct. 1 at the St. Louis Science Center’s Omnimax Theater for an extended run. The JCC has a special community screening planned for the opening night (see infobox for details).

The rock was the place where the earliest tribes in the area worshiped the god of the Western sun. Later, the rock was the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. It is a place at the center of the history of this city that is holy to three faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

“Jerusalem” is a stunningly beautiful film with soaring aerial photography above the city that captures its impressive and ancient character. As travelogue alone, the IMAX film would be worth a look but writer/director Daniel Ferguson offers far more, an exploration of why this is a sacred place to three major faiths, as well as its unique place in archeology and human history. The film is narrated by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who is star of PBS’ “Sherlock Holmes.” He uses an intimate tone, like secrets being revealed, to draw the audience in while still maintaining a sense of gravitas.

In a filmmakers’ statement, Ferguson and producers Taran Davies and George Duffield describe the intent of the film: “Jerusalem stirs passions so deep and its role in Western civilization is so pivotal that we as filmmakers felt moved to bring this city to the world through the beauty and power of the giant screen. Our goal is to look at the roots of the universal attachment to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian and Muslim…We are trying to answer the question: Why Jerusalem? What is it about this tiny space that made it the ultimate prize of empires and the object of longing for so many different cultures over thousands of years?”


Visually, “Jerusalem” is astounding. One reason the views of the city are so incredibly beautiful is the 70 mm film used, which on the huge IMAX screen offers astounding detail. 

“This was not an easy film to make,” Ferguson said. “I have to say every shot was challenging but I knew that going in. When I showed the script to municipal officials in Jerusalem, the police and so forth, they said you will be lucky to get half of this. We got it all. I mean, it was this really amazing thing.”         

Ferguson explains that he and his crew shot this film using several different systems, including IMAX and 70 mm film. “Any of the wide shots of the movie, we shot with this high-resolution digital cameras,” he said. “We used Steadicam, which allows you to wear the camera on your body, for intimate scenes like at the Western Wall, where you are walking down the Via Dolorosa or inside the Dome of the Rock, just to bring things to a human level and put the audience there.”

The film does not address the Israeli-Arab conflict directly but offers insights into the conflict by showing how the city is seen from different perspectives. There are four voices, representing four perspectives on the city, and all are women. Three girls between ages 15 and 18 speak about the city from their families’ point of view — Revital Zacharie, who is Jewish, Nadia Tadros, who is Christian, and Fatah Ammouri, who is Muslim. The fourth voice is Dr. Jodi Magness, an archeologist who discusses the history of the city and represents a secular view. 

“We actually cast [the girls] to look somewhat similar,” Ferguson said. [W]e interviewed over 100 Jewish kids, over 100 Christians and over 100 Muslims and it was a very tough decision in the end. There were so many, it actually gave me great hope… so many brilliant young people with a sense of themselves who could speak eloquently about Jerusalem and their history and their love for it.” 

Each of the four perspectives has the same amount of screen time, although audience may perceive it differently. “I’ll tell you something — Muslims say all the time ‘this is a Jewish story, the Jews take the lead.’ But Jews say ‘no, no it’s far too heavy on the Muslim perspective.’ 

“We were very cautious, very careful in the script writing process, that we actually color-coded the script and we timed each of the sections but every audience member has a different reaction because of the emotional weight they place on things,” Ferguson said.

The film explores the archeology and history of the location. Jerusalem is situated at a crossroads, a place near where the earliest humans came out of Africa, and a rare spot with water, although not enough for a large population, as the film notes. The location is also in close proximity to the Fertile Crescent — the cradle of agriculture, writing, the earliest civilizations, as well as earliest codified beliefs.   

“In the end, I loved the fact that the three protagonists, or four if you include Jodi [Magness], are all women, which is a perspective I don’t think we see enough,” Ferguson said. “[Jerusalem] tends to be traditionally viewed as this city of bearded old men and in reality its not… It’s a city filled with children going to school and we tried to capture that.”