For many Muslims worldwide, the name Ibn Battuta evokes a sense of great pride and conjures up a golden era of Islamic history. The Rihla, one of the greatest travels journals ever recorded, has been greatly responsible for passing on the tales of the 14th-century explorer, who followed the sun and stars to reach Mecca. Over the past year, this 700-year old story has made the transition to the big screen, being shown at over twelve IMAX theatres in locations around the world. “Journey to Mecca: In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta” is shot on a set in Morocco and combines dramatic performances with documentary footages to re-tell a classic adventure.
The British Film Institute recently put on a special screening of the film at their London IMAX theatre to mark Eid al Adha. Prior to the screening, the films producer Jonathan Barker spoke to the audience filled with Ibn Battuta enthusiasts and explained his vision behind the film which was “to celebrate a well known Muslim hero” and to “provide a better understanding of a historical figure that is unknown to many non-Muslims.” As the film began to roll, expectations were undoubtedly high for one of history’s greatest explorers whose legacy has led to a crater on the moon being named after him. But how would a 45 minute documentary drama do justice to a journey that took almost 30 years to complete?
Those who cherish the timeless tale of Battuta’s exploration will find that the film is dramatically condensed to fit a time frame of three quarters of an hour. Key experiences and relationships in his travels through Algeria and Alexandria are completely bypassed. His travels to nearly 40 other countries following the completion of Hajj are a mere mention. But it successfully captures the essence of his travels to the holy city of Islam: a physical journey which emulates the spiritual one in search of the divine through enlightenment and knowledge. The central theme of “pride”, which runs through the unfolding drama successfully conveys this.
Filmed in a format which displays images that are greater in size and resolution than conventional film systems, IMAX creates a unique visual experience that is larger than life. The dramatic scenes of desert landscapes and breathtaking moving aerial shots take the viewer on a journey along side Ibn Battuta from Tangier to Mecca. It even brings to life his re-occurring dream of “flying to Mecca.” With scenes of the “valley of death”, the caravan community on route from Damascus to Mecca and the modern day Hajj remain unforgettable and etched on the mind.
By interposing scenes of 14th century Hajj with those from the 21st century, the viewer is invited on an expedition that takes them to parallel worlds: the past and the present. The power of the visual illustrates a ritual which has remained the same for centuries. This topped with beautiful imagery narrated by the familiar voice of Ben Kingsley provide explanations that are both simplistic and symbolic of the spiritual significance of acts like circling the Kaaba: “We mirror the movements of the heavens seven times”.
The filmmakers took a bold step to choose to shoot the first ever IMAX shots at two of Islam’s holiest sites. Gaining access was a long drawn out process of trust building and red tape for Barker, who has previously been involved in productions out of space (Mission to Mir) and to the bottom of the ocean (Into the Deep). He describes this project as “one of the greatest challenges” in his IMAX career. The efforts of which resulted in unprecedented footage, fulfilling the ethos of IMAX of bringing the audience to a world they cannot access. This is true of the Great Mosque which is restricted to followers of Islam.
An eye for detail is evident both visually and in the story plot of “Journey to Mecca”. Lines such as: “If I should die then let it be on the road to Mecca” are taken from Battuta’s collection of notes and embedded into the narrative giving an authentic tone to a modern day recreation. The Kaaba, a centre of worship for Muslims globally was painstakingly re-produced in Morocco to represent the actual 14th century look. Furthermore, the lead of Ibn Battuta was faithfully and convincingly portrayed by the Moroccan actor Chems Eddine Zinoun. His performance possessed gravitas reflecting one of the Muslim communities most revered heroes. His portrayal is his own legacy to the world, as he tragically passed away two weeks after completing the film.
The Message, Lion of the Desert, and the character of Saladin in Kingdom of Heaven have been a few of the limited portrayals of historical figures and themes from Islamic history by Western filmmakers. The tale of Ibn Battuta possesses the perfect blend of an epic tale mixed with entertainment to join such a list. Whilst it succeeds in celebrating a “well known Muslim hero,” it remains to be seen whether it can cross over to the mainstream as the others have done. The limitation of the IMAX medium is that it is restricted mostly to viewers attending museums and science centres because such large screen theatres are traditionally linked to such bases. The target audience is very specific. With 75 percent of audience members at a Toronto IMAX screening being Muslim, its popularity will depend largely on grassroots promotion and efforts by leaders of the Muslim communities to generate interest. Such efforts would be well worth the trouble.