Journey to Mecca: Heading for Saudi Arabia

How Hard Could It Be?

Having taken the momentous decision to film the Hajj, Cunningham-Reid and Davies boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia. "How hard would it be to make a film in Saudi Arabia about the Hajj? That was the initial thinking. Well, we couldn't have been more wrong," recalls Cunningham-Reid.

"We were a foreign entity, a Western film company in Saudi Arabia, not Muslim, trying to do a giant screen film on the Hajj, the core of the Islamic faith. Of course we were met with suspicion, resistance, and inactivity to some extent." Nothing happens overnight in Saudi Arabia, as they were about to learn.

They subsequently set off on a 2 ½ year odyssey to obtain permission to film what amounts to 10-minutes of footage at the beginning and ending of the 45-minute film, a journey Cunningham-Reid called, "A Million Cups of Tea." In a feat of outstanding patience and perseverance, an epic courtship began, to develop the requisite friendships and contacts, to conduct business in Saudi Arabia-- not a process that goes right to the point as in the Western World, but rather conducted as a social occasion. So dedicated was he to the project, that Cunningham-Reid lived in Saudi Arabia for the entire period. "In Arab countries, you get things done by building friendships."

Along with Casilda Uriarte, who was instrumental in the quest of building relationships, seeking permits, getting visas approved and spending time with supporters to help build confidence to come on board, Cunningham-Reid and Davies eventually secured the 85 permits needed to film in Mecca. "Even when we had the permits, most of the Saudi citizens doubted that we could get into Mecca with the IMAX® cameras and certainly nobody believed we could get close to the Grand Mosque from the air," Cunningham- Reid recalls.

"It is almost impossible to communicate how hard it is to get something like this done in Saudi Arabia because you have to remember we're there trying to make a film in the land that has no movie theatres and has no art galleries and has very little understanding of the movie business. On the basis of the trust that was built, we were able to move forward and get all the bits of paper that we needed. And every piece of paper was difficult to get. We invested everything in this project. It was like a 2 ½ year game of chess," says Cunningham-Reid.

Meanwhile Cunningham-Reid and Davies set out to gain high-level endorsements for the film (See Appendices) and raise the necessary funds from a diverse group of international investors for what would become one of the most expensive and complicated productions in the history of IMAX® filmmaking.

"We set out to produce the greatest IMAX® film ever made about Islam and we needed to convince the investment community that we could pull this off, that it was actually possible to make a film about one of the most logistically complicated events on earth on one of the most challenging media formats in the world," explains Davies.

Cunningham-Reid and Davies began by securing the support of some of the most influential people who are concerned about peace and relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. The team traveled by train across India to meet the Dalai Lama who agreed to lend his name to the project, as did Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. They also secured the support of the Head of the Islamic Departments at George Washington University and the Head of the Center for Muslim- Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Says Davies: "It took a few years, but fortunately over time we were blessed to find an array of investors who all made this film possible".

One of the early supporters of the film was co-producer Al-Zain Al-Sabah, Chairperson of the Kuwait-based production company, Eagle Vision Media Group, "There are film projects, and there are film revolutions. This is the latter," says Co-producer Al Zain Al- Sabah. "Spiritually, aesthetically and professionally, this film involved me, rather than me becoming involved in this film. And it was only natural that I would attach myself to a project that spoke to me on so many different levels."

Additional financing was provided by Dubai and Kuwait-based Desert Door Productions. Co-producer Dima Alansari says, "To me Journey to Mecca is one of those projects that is more than just a film. It is a lifetime project that has combined the energy of so many people who have come together to send a message of peace, to break the haunting barrier that has been built from daily watching of the news and to create a magical experience of what Islam is. I am so excited to see how Arabs from all over and the whole Muslim community will receive it. I am sure they will like it as never before has our religion been so well presented and on such a large format like IMAX®."

"We want to bridge cultures," says Alansari, whose company produces educational and historical films. An added appeal was that it was being shot in English and Arabic. "Arabs want to know about their culture. A lot of Arabs don't know about their history and they're thirsting for the knowledge," says Alansari, whose company was approached by Cunningham-Reid and Davies in early 2007. Their views meshed with the chairman Abdullah Al-Sabej and board member Dr. Fahad Alrashed, and Desert Door Productions became committed.

Executive Producer Jake Eberts brought the Moroccan company, Dounia Productions to the table through his long-time friend Othman Benjelloun. Their financial participation was spurred by their interest in making Ibn Battuta known to the whole world through the IMAX® film, and to give a more positive, peaceful and tolerant image of Islam. "We are confident it will be a spectacular, magnificent and unique movie that will be remembered by generations to come. We feel very proud, excited and honored to be involved in Journey to Mecca," says Co-producer Dounia Benjelloun.

The production could not have accomplished anything without two prestigious organizations - The King Abdulaziz Public Library and King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. "The subject matter of the film is very much their mandate, which is predominately the promotion of education around the Muslim world in matters of history, culture and science. "Through these ‘Blue Chip' organizations, we were able to secure many levels of permission and they went to extraordinary lengths to support our ambitions in Mecca.

"It's a privilege for me to thank Taran and Dominic, and also the other members of the team who have contributed to this wonderful effort. Certainly it's been a voyage as interesting, if not as holy, as a pilgrimage to make this film. And if we remember people being designated for their efforts as being such and such of Arabia or India or any other place, definitely Dominic and Taran deserve that designation. They're both "of Arabia". As you know, there is a verse in the Koran, which says that people coming to pilgrimage should not only devote themselves to their religious duties, but also to their inter-human relationships and a movie like this will definitely go further than any other effort to bring out the universality of faith and the universality of a belief that has transcended the time from Abraham all the way down to Muhammad."

    HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal, Chairman,
    The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies

"We can truly describe this film as one facet of interaction between civilizations, in that it will allow those who are not Muslim themselves to see one aspect of the life of Muslims without an intermediary. It is hoped that this film will succeed in furthering the cause of peaceful cooperation and interaction between different peoples and nations; indeed, it represents a new form of intellectual cross-fertilization and indirect dialogue on the basis of thorough study and deep consideration."

    Faisal A. Al Muammar, General Supervisor, King Abdulaziz Public Library


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