Dalam tahun 2002, sewaktu bersama Yusuf Islam, saya berkesempatan untuk bertemu dengan beberapa produser Barat yang menawarkan Yusuf untuk menjadi sebahagian dari sebuah filem dokumentari mengenai perjalanan haji sekumpulan mualaf dari Eropah.
Ini adalah sebahagian dari langkah memulihkan tanggapan mengenai Muslim sebaik pasca September 11.
Dalam perbincangan itu, Yusuf diperlukan untuk bersama pengambaran dalam 30 hari. Saya teruja juga dengan penglibatan ini kerana sememangnya berminat. Saya juga sepatutnya menjadi sebahagian dari krew.
Walaubagaimanapun, dokumentari itu tidak diteruskan kerana tidak mendapat permit diperlukan dari kerajaan Saudi.
Film follows sacred journey
The first film to capture the experience of being among millions of haji circling the Ka’aba, Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca, will get its official premiere in Abu Dhabi. Journey to Mecca has been filmed in the ultra-high resolution Imax format and will be shown on a giant screen at the Emirates Palace hotel in January.
Tragically its lead actor, 28-year-old Chems Eddine Zinoun, whose performance anchors the film, will not be present. He died earlier this month in a car accident in his native Morocco. Jonathan Barker, the chief executive of SK Films, said everyone was “heart-broken” that the young actor, who initially auditioned for a bit part but went on to become the lead, will not be there to see his accomplishment.
“I recently had a wonderful dinner with him and asked how he felt about being in a film that would be actively shown for many decades around the world,” he said.
“He said he felt grateful and honoured to be in this film – especially if it meant more understanding of the richness of his culture and more respect between the West and the East, and between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
Imagenation Abu Dhabi, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), will host screenings of the 45-minute film, three times a day over three days from Jan 7. ADMC also publishes The National.
Edward Borgerding, the chief executive of ADMC, said it was “tragic” that Zinoun died just as his film career was blooming but the movie in which he starred was “fantastic”.
“It’s a quality movie about a subject we love and care deeply about, which is Mecca,” he said.“As a local Abu Dhabi film company, we’re proud to sponsor this movie. We wanted to show it because it’s a beautiful theme and a beautiful message.”
Zinoun’s character is Ibn Battuta, the 14th century traveller who made five pilgrimages to Mecca during a 30-year journey that took him across the Muslim world. He covered 115,000km, three times as far as the distance covered by the Western explorer, Marco Polo.
Ibn Battuta’s original journey from Tangiers to Mecca for the 1326 haj took him 18 months. It took filmmakers twice as long to receive permission to shoot Imax footage in Mecca for use in the film.
Dominic Cunningham-Reid, the film’s producer, moved to Saudi Arabia and lived there for the two-and-a-half years it took to secure the 85 permits needed to film what became 10 minutes of screen time in Journey to Mecca. He described the process of overcoming suspicion, resistance and inactivity as conciliation via “a million cups of tea”.
The film is the first time cameras using an Imax format have been allowed inside Mecca. Imax, short for Image Maximum, is used for large-format, special venue film presentations on huge screens, measuring 22 metres wide and 16.1 metres high or larger.
Jonathan Barker, another producer on the project, said the difficulties of filming in Mecca during the haj were more demanding than the organising Imax footage shot on the space shuttle.
“It is certainly the most challenging film I’ve ever been involved in,” he said. “This was extraordinarily difficult because we had to have an all-Muslim crew and, to date, there had been very few Muslims with experience in the Imax medium, so we had to train them. “
We were fortunate to find three really wonderful Muslim cinematographers.
”One of them, Afshin Javadi, took the only footage ever shot by one of the faithful circling the Ka’aba, which he said captured the essence and the beauty of the haj. “
The footage was mesmerising and monumental,” he said.
Other scenes were filmed by helicopter from just above, another cinematic first.
Even after completing the footage in Mecca, the filming moved to locations in Morocco, where 4,500 extras were used to depict the Damascus caravan of pilgrims. A team of 15 expert advisers ensured accuracy, from the religious aspects of the 14th century haj, to the clothing of the hajis and the calligraphy used in the credits.
Cunningham-Reid said the genesis of the film had been to promote a better understanding of Islam and go beyond the typical depictions in the western media.
“After September 11, there was a great hunger and a real need for information about Islam in the West,” he said.
Tahir Shah, the screenwriter, went through more than 55 drafts to reach the final script. Of Anglo-Afghan heritage, he said the attacks made him feel responsible, as someone who had a presence in both East and West, to bridge the gap between them by introducing each to the other’s culture.
The stereotyping of Arab actors in western films was underscored by the previous roles of the film’s actors. Hassam Ghancy, who plays the second lead, an ultimately benevolent bandit, in Journey to Mecca, had recently appeared in Traitor, a Hollywood film starring Don Cheadle, as a member of a terrorist group targeted by the CIA.
Nabil Elouahabi, who played Battuta’s best friend, most recently was also in a film about the September 11 attacks.
It is hoped up to 5,000 people will see Journey to Mecca when it is shown at the Emirates Palace hotel. Screenings will alternate between versions in English with Arabic subtitles and in Arabic with English subtitles.If it proves to be well received, Bruce Neibaur, its director, thinks most of the credit should go to Zinoun.
“I knew he was our Ibn Battuta from the moment he first walked in to audition for a different and smaller role,” he said. “If the film is a success, it will be because Chems was our Ibn Battuta.”