10 February 2011

Movie Review: MacGillvray's Arabia in IMAX 3-D

I had the privilege of attending a preview screening of MacGillvray's Arabia in IMAX 3-D, which will begin its Between the Beltways run at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Hamzah Jamjoom, the 22 year old Saudi filmmaker who was the "star" of the documentary was there to introduce the film and to effuse enthusiasm for a dynamic presentation of his homeland. Jamjoom noted that this was the first American film to have been made in what the DePaul University Film Graduate joked is “the world’s largest oven”.  Special cooling units needed to be used to protect the fragile High Definition Cameras and the crews in the oppressive 120 F heat.

The film surprisingly starts out on a coral reef, which is counter to most peoples conception of Arabia as a huge natural sandbox. The film acts as somewhat of a travelogue as it shows the vast desert and the heroic legacy of the Bedouin culture along with the mountains and valleys of Arabia and even alludes to volcanic activity.

The documentary tries to show a more modern side of the Saudi Kingdom with the skyscraper of the Capital Riyadh and the more cosmopolitan coastal city of Jeddah. One of the leitmotifs of the Arabia documentary is trying to show the challenges for a young country to embrace aspects of modernity while respecting their ancient tribal culture.  The film captured a rare glimpse of a casual portrayal of Jamjoom’s family in Jeddah, which is much less reserved and conservative than a Saudi on the street.

The film’s thesis is that Arabia had two Golden Ages.  The first flourishing of civilization in Arabia was with Nabateans, who grew wealthy on trading Frankincense with the polytheistic Roman Empire.  The second glory days were during the rise of Islam.  The documentary glosses over the bloody conquests necessary for an Islamic empire spanning from Andalucia, Spain to India. The film, however, emphasizes the virtues of the quest for learning of the scholars of Arabia, especially in science.  It was as if the Obama NASA Administrator was on a mission to the Middle East.   But this proud scientific history was a strong segue for promoting its presumed legacy at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which has the world’s 6th largest endowment.

For an IMAX documentary, it has a directed point of view and its script is not as hokey as Legends of Flight or other early IMAX films. To convey some historical elements of the script, director Greg MacGillvray resorted to using brief segments of CGI, in which the human figures seemed somewhat plastic on the really big screen.

Those CGI shortcomings aside, there were a few scenes that truly took one’s breath away in IMAX.

 Seeing the many of the 3 million faithful circle the Kabbah seven times in Mecca during the Hajj was amazing.

The classic vista of a Bedouin riding a camel in the desert at sunset was stunning.

 I was also impressed with the twilight shot of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

The 3-D elements of the film were not constant but were wisely used.  The coral reef segments did grip ones attention and make one open to a non-cliched visual experience of Arabia.  When showing some of the historic Nebatean ruins, the boulder in the foreground gave the visual experience depth.  

Perhaps I have spent too long Between the Beltways, but I sensed streams of Saudi propaganda.  The uniting of the young Kingdom was understandable.  But the way King Abdullah University was portrayed, it seemed aimed at presenting a “modern” Islamic culture where men and woman can work together yet keep Koranic proprieties.  The linkage between the scholarship of Islam’s Golden Age and the King Abdullah University endowment offered Jamjoom an opportunity of irrational exuberance to proclaim a third Golden Age.

While it will never be a Hollywood Blockbuster, Arabia 3-D is a worthy experience that might spark an intellectual curiosity about the Kingdom of the House of Saud.

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