What do you know about life in Arabia? Camel riding Bedouins? Insta-cities awash in oil wealth? The home of Islam, and all that entails?
All true, but yet no more comprehensive than hanging out with a cowboy and thinking you've got the pulse of America. For a country and a culture that has occupied a prominent role in our foreign policy (and we just might want to keep abreast of right now), many of us know surprisingly little about it.
An excellent introduction is now playing at the National Museum of Natural History's IMAX theater. Arabia 3D tells the story of the Arabian Peninsula's two great golden ages, alongside the exploration of their current boom associated with oil wealth. It's shown through the eyes of Hamzah Jamjoom, a 22 year old film student from De Paul University in Chicago, who was originally hired as an assistant cameraman, before he was, in his own words, found to be "too charming to stay on that end of the camera".
Jamjoom takes us through the frankincense-trading Nabataean tribes and the 7th Century Islamic explosion upon the world scene. Hearkening back to the days of great Islamic scholarship (the word algebra comes from al-jabr, Arabic for restoration), the film compares such new developments as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology with those earlier triumphs and yearns for a new era of enlightenment.
And while it's easy to fall into the stereotype of the camel-riding Arab trekking across the desert, the harshness of the environment has shaped the very ethos of Saudis, a trait the film discusses. The evolution of the natural world after a seismic break from Africa 25 million years ago is explored in a somewhat goofy, but quite illustrative, animation that helps relate the natural world to the culture of the region. Harsh winds and sand-storms punctuate the discussions, and seem as ubiquitous a background as the Arabic music.
But the heat, how to portray the stifling heat? Simply saying 120 degrees again and again doesn't do it, but an overhead view of Mecca, showing dozens of not hundreds of people praying in the shadow of a minaret brings it home. Every inch of the shade is filled with people. So much, that the shadow is obscured, and seen from overhead, it apears if hundreds of people have taken upon themselves to form a shape of a minaret.
The film is an unmistakably sympathetic look at the history and culture of Saudi Arabia, and by extension its Islamic roots, but they don't shy from discussing the emerging role of women within Saudi culture. A significant portion of the movie directly discusses the issue, albeit in a largely positive light. The role of women in Saudi society is traced to it's origin in the nomadic Bedouin culture where women often outnumbered men and required a great deal of protection (from whom, Arabia leaves tactfully unsaid).
Saudi poet and activist Nimah Ismail Nawwab chronicles her experiences and views as a woman working with, and at times against, her society to be heard. She takes special care to note that Islam allows her the dignity to continue her struggle, and Arabia seems to imply, if not implicitly state, the distinction between culture and religion that may hopefully allow women to have an equal role in society.
The film has it's most gripping moments when it discusses the Hajj, and shows the great masses of humanity that converge on the Great Mosque in Mecca every year. Literally millions of people from 160 countries come as equals to worship, and Arabia captures some of that drama. As the first, and so far only, film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, this central narrative of Islam is visually captured in the swirling mass of pilgrims that encircles the Ka'ba seven times.
Perhaps one of the more refreshing things about Arabia is the way it incorporates IMAX 3D technology in a way that enhances the story. All too often, movie makers (and hardly just IMAX ones), fall in love with their toys and lose any sense of artistry in their production. Both the wild terrain of deserts and mountains and the aggressively modern skylines of Saudi cities lends itself to this medium, but they also manage to capture the intimacy of family gatherings and the claustrophobia of ancient tombs as well. It may very well be the best use of IMAX 3d technology I've seen yet.