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Feb 2011
Journey to Mecca – The IMAX Experience

Imagine the scene... There are crowds of people milling about, some in queues, some chatting by the windows, others sipping a warm drink. There are children playing in corners, babies drinking milk, and wherever you look you see people of all creeds and races united under the banner of a shared humanity. And what is the reason for this diverse cross section of society to be present in one place on a quiet and sleepy Sunday afternoon at Birmingham’s ThinkTank? The answer is right there across the busy foyer. It is a poster for a new IMAX film called “Journey to Mecca”. The very air bubbles with excitement and expectation as the cinema staff cut the proverbial ribbon and usher the people into the auditorium.

Space, vast and open, is the first thing that hits the audience as they take their seats and let their eyes wander over the immense spectrum of the IMAX screen. A map unfurls across the screen and a narrator explains the time and lays down the background to the scene that is about to commence. The year is 1325, the place is Tangier and the story is about a man who is about to embark upon a journey to the holy city of Mecca on a pilgrimage. The charismatic young man is Ibn Battuta, he stares at the stars that twinkle across the canvas of the night sky and he dreams of spires, of domes, of jewelled cities that sparkle in the desert sands, and his vision swoops like a falcon over the alleys and streets of the kingdom until they rest upon the Ka’aba, the sacred building at the heart of Islam.

Ibn Battuta bids farewell to his beloved family and sets out on his journey which will see him tested, both physically and psychologically, as he travels to the fabled city of Mecca. His trials and tribulations on the road to Mecca are detailed with an emotional richness rarely seen in modern cinema. The script is nuanced in a way that allows the audience to connect with the action and the various characters. The depth of research and the care in which the tale is told is delicately balanced. This is cinema as entertainment and as education.

The film reveals the magic and wonder of the Hajj by contrasting the life of Ibn Battuta with modern day worshippers at the same holy sites as those visited by the young traveller all those years ago. The scale of the event is brought to realisation in a way that will make even the most jaded film connoisseur gasp with astonishment.

In terms of technicalities, the IMAX technology is notorious for being extremely expensive and difficult to master. The format does not allow for the creative freedom that one can utilize in 35mm, so it is to the credit of the crew that this film looks seamless and breathtaking. Every single frame of the drama is a beautifully crafted canvas that seems to glow like a painting. The cinematography is exemplary and employs a painterly palette. The deserts and mountains are dry, cracked and dusty brown like wrinkled parchment while the sun drips golden lava across the scorching landscape. The white garments of the pilgrims are like beacons floating in the creamy dust of the desert sands whilst the tapestries hanging in the bazaars are lovingly stitched in green and blue threads; and the silver and gold bangles on the arms and ankles of the village girls ****** and twinkle. The atmosphere of warmth and friendship is apparent in every scene, especially when the succulent food is shared by the soft red glow of the campfires. High above this blend of colours, languages and the swirl of human emotions are the dancing stars that ripple in the heavens. The spectacle and sounds of a bygone era are stunningly designed.

The soundtrack also serves the film quite well. The music is never intrusive or melodramatic, it is there as a soft accompaniment to the proceedings. The use of strings, Moorish mandolins, African percussion and the human voice brings an exotic and ethereal ambiance to the drama.

“Journey to Mecca” is a journey of hope, a journey of understanding and a journey that will inspire. The sheer magnitude and beauty of this film left the audience awed and instilled a desire to learn more about the past which we sometimes neglect to reflect upon in our fast moving lives. This film is an ode to peace, love and compassion, and acts as a bridge of understanding between the past and present. And, as the film fades to black at the ******, there is a final haunting image that will resonate with every member of the audience. The message is simple and poignant. It illustrates the transient and swift nature of life; it shows how we glow brightly by the light of the noon day sun and then fade into the tranquil shadows of the coming twilight. Our journey in this life should be one that respects all of humanity despite our cultural or political differences. It is not often that one leaves the cinema knowing that your soul has been moved by something rare, delicate and exquisite. This was one of those rare occasions.
Rangzeb Hussain
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Rangzeb Hussain
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