The Big Picture about Jerusalem

Yesterday, I took my eight-year-old son and his friend to an IMAX showing of the documentary Jerusalem. I doubt it was their favourite IMAX: Vikings or Lemurs were likely more to their taste for armoured battles and funny critters. But I left the expansive theatre unexpectedly moved by the words (narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch) and eight-storey images of the National Geographic profile (written, directed and co-produced by Canadian Daniel Ferguson) of the Old City of Jerusalem, its ancient history and contemporary life, the sacred home to three major religions and geographical nexus between the civilizations of Africa, Asia and Europe. 



I’ve visited the city at least 10 times over the last 25 years, perpetually drawn through the stone gates and into the Escher-like labyrinth of the walled city. But I had never seen Jerusalem from the hovering and zooming aerial perspectives of the IMAX team, nor explored its subterranean depths—the ancient water springs that allowed its first peoples to settle on these rocky heights—or, in the unintentionally loaded phrase of one Israeli archaeologist in the film, the city’s “layers of occupation.” 

Likewise, the digital recreations of the landscape before settlement, the complete structure of the Second Temple, or the Temple Mount before the Dome of the Rock was erected allowed the architectural and religious history of the city—impossible to disentangle—to unfold in mere minutes. And the film brings to vivid life on the very big screen the pulsing music and song of the modern city, the chants of the faithful, the rituals of the holy days—Ramadan, Passover, Easter—that fill the narrow streets with celebrants who pour down from the hills and into the ancient city. Enough even to touch my own agnostic heart.

Unlike many IMAX features, Jerusalem doesn’t force too much of a saccharine narrative onto its cinematic showpieces. The threads of the three faiths—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—are joined through the lives and voices of three real teenage girls who live in or near the city. The city’s long history of conflict is acknowledged but not dwelled upon, and the three girls’ hopes for peace in their city remains shadowed by their acknowledgement that the three faiths remain isolated from each other in their geographical, spiritual and political quarters. The movie’s concluding image—a fine touch I won’t spoil—emphasizes the tenuous, ambivalent theme of reconciliation in a historically burdened and deeply divided city.

It’s a movie worth seeing, for anyone interested in the Golden City, especially as Jerusalem descends into new levels violence, with Palestinian protests over increased Jewish building in East Jerusalem, and vehicular attacks and stabbings in and around the city. Any hope for peace or even just stability in Israel and Palestine needs to address the paradox of Jerusalem and the obstacles of its various orthodoxies. Each side in the conflict must learn to transcend its narrow interests and internecine suspicions and see the big picture. It’s hard to imagine a bigger picture of Jerusalem right now than the one projected on IMAX screens around the world.