x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Imagenation putting Abu Dhabi film-making on the map

The film marks the first time that crews for large-format films were let into Islam's holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

When the Imax dramatic documentary Journey To Mecca premiered last night at Emirates Palace, it represented two important debuts for the film industry. The film marks the first time that crews for large-format films were let into Islam's holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, as well as the first time they were able get aerial footage of the haj. In addition, the presentation on a specially constructed outdoor movie screen - the largest of its kind ever built - represented the inaugural exhibition by Imagenation Abu Dhabi, the billion-dollar film fund set up by the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) last autumn. ADMC owns The National.

Edward Borgerding, the chief executive of Imagenation, said the company jumped at the chance to present the film, which was produced by its partner, National Geographic Films, along with Cosmic Picture and SK Films. "Because the film is about a beautiful and elegant part of Islamic culture, and is also about one of the great heroes of the Arab world, Ibn Battuta, it seems like a natural and lovely subject to be able to present to our society here," he said.

"Imagenation has put Abu Dhabi film-making on the international map, and Journey to Mecca signals how a new era of film-making can build a powerful bridge between the East and the West." In addition to giving out free tickets to the screening, Imagenation Abu Dhabi is distributing instructional packets on the film to local schools. The film follows Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century traveller, from Morocco to Mecca and includes contemporary footage of the haj. It was the brainchild of Dominic Cunningham-Reid and Taran Davies, the co-founders of Cosmic Picture.

Getting permission to make it required the film-makers to spend several years in Saudi Arabia, forging relationships with institutions and eventually securing permits for a team of more than 80 Muslim crew members to film the haj with three Imax cameras in 2007. The film cost US$13 million (Dh47.74m), an unusually high budget for an Imax film. Imax is a film format created by Canada's Imax Corporation that can display images of far greater size and resolution than conventional film display systems, and is often displayed in educational settings such as museums.

Jonathan Barker, the president and chief executive of SK Films, is a veteran of the giant-screen film industry, but said nothing he had done in his career compared with the difficulty of making Journey To Mecca. "I've been responsible for taking an Imax camera up to the Mir Space Station, been underwater in 3D at the bottom of the ocean, made a film about insects in 3D technology that we had to create - all of these were very challenging projects, but they pale in comparison to the challenges we had on this film," he said.

The distribution should be equally challenging, he said, because the film diverged from the traditional science and nature topics of most Imax films. "This is a film about culture, and about people and about humanity," he said. "It is different from what the people who manage these theatres have to sell." However, following its three-day run in Abu Dhabi, the film is already slated to open in Dearborne, Michigan, and Paris next Thursday, and in Toronto on Feb 7.

He expects many of the more than 50 Imax theatres around the world to sign on soon, including those in the Gulf. The UAE's Imax theatre is located in Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai. In response to the distribution question, Jake Eberts, the chairman of National Geographic Films and executive producer of the film, evoked a speech in one of his previous projects, Gandhi, whose star, Ben Kingsley, narrates Journey To Mecca. "Gandhi said at one time when he was being attacked in his ashram by an angry crowd of young men, he stopped and he said, 'Stop this nonsense. Stop this anger. I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a Buddhist, I am a Jew, and so are all of you. If we can, we must learn how to tear down the walls that surround us, and before we can do that, we must tear down the walls in our hearts'," Mr Eberts said.

"Unless we can get distribution in those parts of the world where there are walls, we will have failed. We are not going to fail. We are going to see this film in every major institution, every major city, every Imax screen around the world. We are going to do what we can to tear down those walls, that's why we are here." khagey@thenational.ae