Journey to Mecca: Filming Mecca

The Hajj is the Pilgrimage to Mecca. The rites of the Hajj have been the same for 1,400 years. Everyone becomes equal at the Hajj. There is no difference between the rich and the poor. The pilgrim circumnavigates the Ka'bah seven times counterclockwise. The circumambulation of the Ka'bah is called the Tawaf.

The Ka'bah, a cube-shaped building located inside the mosque at Mecca, is the holiest place in Islam. The mosque was built around the original Ka'bah, which, according to the Qu'ran, was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Islamic traditions assert that the Ka'bah was first built by the first man, the Prophet Adam.

The Hajj is about forgiveness and mercy; renewal and rebirth. During the Hajj, people meet from around the world, which is the essence of the Ibn Battuta story, fascinated as he was by religion and cultural diversity.

"We went to great lengths to make this a Muslim production in Mecca. The beauty of the project was that we empowered a Muslim team to go into Mecca and do something that has never been done before - to bring the Hajj to the giant screen. This is an honor they will wear for generations the impact of which we are yet to see," says Cunningham-Reid.

Supervising Producer Diane Roberts' and Line Producer Daniel Ferguson began setting up the Saudi Arabia shoot of Mecca in October 2007 with production headquartered in Jeddah. The crewing of the film was a Herculean task because Ferguson had to find three local crews to shoot in Mecca, all had to be Muslim and all had to have knowledge of film. The production brought in eight Westerners. The total Muslim crew in Saudi Arabia numbered 85, all of whom had to be trained in less than a month before the Hajj began on December 17th. Ferguson hired his first crew member on November 15th and the rest followed. His enthusiastic crew worked seven days a week in two shifts from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. for four sleep-deprived weeks.

"Everything was difficult. We had to obtain permits to get permits, permits for meetings; sand bags, cars, things we take for granted in the West," says Ferguson, who, along with the other Westerners, was extremely moved the moment the Muslim crew went into Mecca. "They worked so hard to get there and suddenly the moment was there," says Ferguson.

"It is certainly the most challenging film I've ever been involved in," agrees Barker who has worked on films where IMAX® cameras were put on a space shuttle and sent up to dock with the Mir Space Station. "But this one was extraordinarily difficult and complicated because, first of all, we had to have an all-Muslim crew and to date there have been very few Muslims with experience in the IMAX® medium, so we had to train them. We were fortunate to find three really wonderful and talented Muslim Cinematographers: Ghasem Ebrahimian, Afshin Javadi and Rafey Mahmood. We flew them to Los Angeles and trained for a week. Diane Roberts and Dave Douglas ran the training programme. Douglas an award winning director who has shot over 60 IMAX® films, has trained many of the Astronauts to shoot in space and is renowned for his expertise in training for the IMAX® medium. And then we had to train a whole support crew."

"All of the non-Muslim producers, director and support waved goodbye to the buses as they went into Mecca. It was a very strange feeling, waving goodbye to 85 people at the checkpoint where you have to show your pass to get into Mecca," says Barker. "When filming an IMAX® project, one can anticipate a great deal of planning and patience, due to the enormous size and complexity of the equipment. What I didn't expect were the challenges we faced working around millions of Hajj pilgrims, in many cases, making the most important journey of their lives, the pilgrimage to Islam's holiest site, the Ka'bah. Initially, the process seemed arduous and frustrating, until I looked beyond the chaos and discovered how the pilgrims flowed, not as many, but as one. Once my crew and I began going with "the flow," both figuratively and literally, we managed to capture the essence and the beauty of Hajj. I went as far as doing a steadicam shot of the holy Ka'bah, while circumambulating it with tens of thousands of pilgrims, a shot never done before. The footage was mesmerizing and monumental," said Afshin Javadi.

Rafey Mahmood stated that "The desert opened its arms and welcomed us. I felt my unit members were like fellow travellers on a cosmic journey. We had come to witness, record and share an age long spiritual practice of great inner and outer movements and we were happy to be doing it on the wondrous IMAX. The promise of sharing these great images on the biggest screen kept me inspired each day. One night waves of faithful pilgrims went around the holy Ka'bah in Tawaaf, as we tried to calculate a time lapse shot from one of the minarets. Can this event be a symbolic replica of some timeless pulsation of our reality? But one thing I knew for certain-in crossing the Arabian Sea from Mumbai, I had covered an important part of my own journey as an Indian Muslim and as a Cinematographer. I welcome all to Journey to Mecca!"

"We made every effort to find the very best Muslim filmmakers and train them up for this honorable and important task. Many came back with shaved heads and in tears at their achievement," says Cunningham-Reid. The Muslims who made it their own, achieved something profound and artistic. Every shot was difficult. Every shot was a triumph. It is the equivalent of training the Astronauts to shoot IMAX® in outer space. "The Saudi footage will enhance the fictional footage," says Ferguson. "There was a force behind it. It was a shoot that was meant to happen."


Heading for Saudi Arabia
The Filmmakers
The Screenplay
Casting for Ibn Battuta
The Highwayman
Ibn Muzaffar and Hamza
Ben Kingsley as Narrator
Filming in Mecca
IMAX® film logistics
Mecca in Morocco
The Camel Caravan
Camel Capers
Damascus, The Red Sea and The Nile
IMAX® Isn't For Sissies
Historical Advisors
Arabic Calligraphy
Ibn Battuta