Journey to Mecca: The Screenplay
When Cunningham-Reid and Davies envisioned the concept for the film, it seemed like an obvious winner and audience pleaser. A compelling adventure story of one of the world’s greatest travelers, focusing on his first journey to Mecca - the most holy place of Islam - celebrating a great Muslim hero and introducing non-Muslims to a remarkable man whom most had not heard of before and taking them to amazing places they had never seen before in the immersive IMAX® medium.
While their original vision has been achieved, the process was anything but straightforward, over 55 drafts later and a with a team of writers, script editors and experts, and a tremendous amount of co-ordination. "Dominic and Taran’s vision and passion for the project was infectious," says Barker, "but part of my, Diane and Daniel’s job was to temper that enthusiasm with the reality of this massive undertaking within the budget and schedule. I saw immediately that the challenges of telling this unique story using IMAX® technology would be considerable."
When Barker asked Wendy MacKeigan to co-ordinate the scripting process and be one of the story editors, she responded "Let me get this straight: you Producers want to achieve, in a mere 45 minutes, a highly entertaining, compelling, dramatic adventure story told like a conventional feature film, using actors and on-screen dialogue - not commonplace in the traditional IMAX® format-and with character arc and transformation, a period piece set in the 14th century, traversing many remote locations and ending up in 21st century Mecca with millions experiencing the many rites of the Hajj which will need some explaining, satisfying the many experts on Ibn Battuta, and those on 14th century culture, architecture and on Islam and the Hajj then and now?" Barker smiled and nodded "Yes!"
Bruce Neibaur had produced over 10 drafts and great progress had been made, but as he started to turn his attention to his major and complex directorial duties, the Producers thought it would add valuable perspective and a more authentic voice to bring in an experienced writer steeped in Middle Eastern culture. Building bridges is very much on the agenda of author Tahir Shah, who has an Afghan father and English, partly Indian mother. "My family is from the East and the West," says the renowned author of more than a dozen books, several documentary films and champion of what he calls "The East- West Bridge." Says Shah, "After 9/11, I think that there’s a responsibility to show the east to the west, and the west to the east. This film became very important to me because that’s exactly what it is doing."
Shah had always known about the story of Ibn Battuta. "It had always been a favorite, a slice of history," notes the author whose books include In Arabian Nights, The Caliph’s House and A Year in Casablanca. Shah reinterpreted Bruce Neibaur’s original script, keeping the main story, but heightening the characters’ emotions, on the journey, in Mecca and in the scenes dealing with Islam.
As a former travel writer, Shah empathized with Ibn Battuta. "I think he’s there inside all of us as a dreamer. Look how far his dreams took him. I think the Highwayman is inside all of us as well. He’s the man who questions faith, who at the same time is a father figure to Ibn Battuta. I think he understood Ibn Battuta when Ibn Battuta couldn’t understand himself. There is sensitivity between the Highwayman and Ibn Battuta because Ibn Battuta needed the Highwayman more than the Highwayman needed him. But at the end, they were both affected by each other. That makes for a very powerful story. You have two divergent people, who, in the end, change each other." "We built in dramatic transformation, and both Battuta and our fictional Highwayman are changed by this journey," says Barker.
"I think that 14th century Mecca and 21st century Mecca will intercut beautifully," says Shah. "There’s one reason why. It is not about what Mecca looks like, it is not about the faces, it is about the spirit of the people who are performing the Hajj. The Hajj is a time of being on a pilgrimage to Mecca to perform the rites, and the feelings of Muslims when they’re in Mecca. Your body is there but your mind is with God and that’s a very difficult thing to explain to Westerners."
Concludes Shah, "I think the Eastern World and the Western World will see completely different things in the film. For the Orient it will be a celebration of faith and of an icon, an incredibly important Muslim traveler. The extent of his travels is mesmerizing. At the same time, I think the West will learn from this film, because, in a subtle way, they will receive an understanding of what Islam is about, more than they have now. I think we can all learn from each other. This film is giving a solid contribution to that end." Screenwriter and Director Ruba Nadda made a very important contribution as a script consultant following the drafts from Shah. Working with MacKeigan and Barker, she helped strengthen the dialogue and dramatic moments of the film and brought a lyrical quality to Battuta’s words.
Finally, screenwriter Carl Knutson rounded out the writing team. "Wendy and Jonathan brought me in briefly at the earlier draft screenplay stage to work on structure and Ibn Battuta’s character profile and beats. I came back in to the process more significantly at the rough cut picture editing stage, by which time the major story beats were already in place. My task was refining Ibn Battuta’s voice-over. One of my instructions was that Battuta’s first person voice come from his 14th century travel journal - The Rihla - whenever possible. The most challenging aspect of the writing was finding the real voice of a young 14th century man on a both a spiritual quest and a search for knowledge and adventure - while making him accessible to a modern audience." "Another goal for us was to do more research on the journey itself as the 14th century world that Ibn Battuta traveled through was incredibly colourful - from the magnificence of the Damascus Caravan and the rich culture of Cairo, to the deadly threats our hero faced in the desert. After many drafts, the last refinements came out of creative suggestions from all of the Producers, the Director and the writing and script editing team. When all was said and done there were over 20 drafts written in post-production alone."
From the pre-production through to completion of the film, the script benefitted tremendously from the input of multi-talented Line Producer and Script Editor - and former theology student - Daniel Ferguson. His creativity and experience as a writer, combined with his experience in both production and distribution of IMAX films, resulted in him making many valuable contributions to the script.
The script was a collaborative and massive team effort involving not only the writing and script editing team, and some of the world’s leading experts on Ibn Battuta including Ross Dunn, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, and Dr. A Tazi but the Producers as well. Barker and Davies in particular vetted most major drafts in detail. "When you think that this film could be playing in some theatres for over 20 years, combined with the responsibility to handle the subject with deep respect, the writing team and producers all worked very hard to try to get this just right," says Barker.
The film credits are shown over selections from ancient manuscripts based on the travel journal of Ibn Battuta, with its beautiful calligraphy. The original version can be viewed today at the National Library in Paris.