For many Muslims worldwide, the name Ibn Battuta evokes a sense of great pride and conjures up a golden era of Islamic history. The Rihla, one of the greatest travel journals ever recorded, has been greatly responsible for passing on the tales of the 14th century explorer who followed the sun and stars to reach Mecca.
In the past year, this 700-year-old story made the transition to the big screen, shown at over 12 IMAX theaters in locations around the world. “Journey to Mecca: In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta is mostly shot on a set in Morocco and combines dramatic performances with documentary footage to re-tell a classic adventure.
The British Film Institute recently put on a special screening of the film at their London IMAX theater to mark Eid Al-Adha. Prior to the screening, the film s producer Jonathan Barker spoke to the audience filled with Ibn Battuta enthusiasts and explained his vision behind the film, which was to celebrate a well known Muslim hero and to provide a better understanding of a historical figure that is unknown to many non-Muslims.
Those who cherish the timeless tale of Ibn Battuta s exploration will find that the film successfully captures the essence of his travels to the holy city of Islam – a physical journey that emulates the spiritual one in search of the divine through enlightenment and knowledge.
Filmed in a format that displays images that are greater in size and resolution than conventional film systems, IMAX creates a unique visual experience that is larger than life. The dramatic scenes of desert landscapes and breathtaking moving aerial shots take the viewer on a journey alongside Ibn Battuta, from Tangier to Mecca. It even brings to life his reoccurring dream of flying to Mecca. Scenes of the valley of death, the caravan community en route from Damascus to Mecca and the modern day Hajj, the pilgrimage to Islam s holiest sites in Mecca, remain unforgettable and etched on the mind.
By interposing scenes of 14th century Hajj with those from the 21st century, the viewer is invited on an expedition that takes them to parallel worlds: the past and the present. The power of the visual illustrates a ritual that has remained the same for centuries. This, topped with beautiful imagery narrated by the familiar voice of actor Ben Kingsley, provide explanations that are both simplistic and symbolic of the spiritual significance of acts like circling the most sacred site for Muslims, the Kaaba: We mirror the movements of the heavens seven times.
The filmmakers took a bold step to choose to shoot the first-ever IMAX shots at two of Islam s holiest sites. Gaining access was a long drawn out process of trust building and red tape for Barker, who was previously involved in productions in space (“Mission to Mir ) and to the bottom of the ocean (“Into the Deep ). He describes this project as one of the greatest challenges in his IMAX career. But the efforts finally resulted in unprecedented footage, fulfilling the ethos of IMAX – bringing the audience to a world they cannot access, such as the Great Mosque of Mecca, which houses the Kaaba and is restricted to Muslims.
An eye for detail is evident, both visually and in the plot of “Journey to Mecca. Lines such as: If I should die then let it be on the road to Mecca are taken from Ibn Battuta s collection of notes and embedded into the narrative giving an authentic tone to a modern day recreation. The 14th century version of the Kaaba, which is what Muslims around the world face toward in worship, was painstakingly reproduced in Morocco to represent how it actually looked at that time.
Furthermore, the lead of Ibn Battuta was faithfully and convincingly portrayed by the Moroccan actor Chems Eddine Zinoun. His performance possessed gravitas in reflecting one of Muslims most revered heroes. His portrayal is his own legacy to the world, as he tragically died two weeks after completing the film.
Movies such as “The Message, “Lion of the Desert, and the character of the 12th century sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, in “Kingdom of Heaven have offered a few of the limited portrayals of historical figures and themes from Islamic history by Western filmmakers. The tale of Ibn Battuta possesses the perfect blend of an epic tale mixed with entertainment to join such a list. While it succeeds in celebrating a well-known Muslim hero, it remains to be seen whether it can cross over to the mainstream as the others have done.
The limitation of the IMAX medium is that it is restricted mostly to viewers attending museums and science centers because such large screen theaters are traditionally linked to such venues. The target audience is very specific. With Muslims making up 75 percent of audience members at a Toronto IMAX screening, its popularity will depend largely on grassroots promotion and efforts by leaders of the Muslim communities to generate interest. Such efforts would be well worth the trouble.
Nabila Pathan is a British writer and broadcaster. She hosted Press TV s flagship discussion series Women s Voice and writes for the blog Word Play. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Altmuslim.com. The full text can be found at www.altmuslim.com.