Ferguson explains religious cooperation in filmmaking process

If Daniel Ferguson’s recent documentaries on two of the holiest sites in the world can teach anything, it’s that, with a shared purpose, mutual goals and establishing trust, people of different backgrounds can achieve anything — be it art or interfaith harmony.

Ferguson is the director of two IMAX films depicting Jerusalem and Mecca. He spoke Wednesday from the Hall of Philosophy to deliver his lecture, “1,001 Cups of Tea: What It Took to Create the IMAX Films ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Journey to Mecca.’ ” He said due to work and immigration restrictions, he used a diverse cast picked for reasons of accessibility to the sites over experience.

“We had a mixed crew, and I want to explain what that means in that part of the world,” Ferguson said. “A mixed crew in this case is certainly internationals — Israelis, Palestinians or Jordanians. … We said, ‘We want to do this together.’ And we were laughed at.”

Fighting an uphill battle to obtain permission to film at the holy sites, Ferguson said his secret was establishing trust with the local population by living there. While contemporary media uses a splash-and-dash strategy, he wanted his subjects to know he and his crew were in it for the long haul.

“After a number of months, we realized it was all about trust,” Ferguson said. “No one trusted us. What we realized was that we had to live there. We had to live, we had to break bread, and we had to listen to people.”

Before filming “Journey to Mecca,” religious authorities said Ferguson could not access the holy site himself unless he converted to Islam. He decided instead to train members of his crew, some of whom had never touched film before, to shoot it themselves.

“People came together for a common purpose — in this case, an artistic one,” Ferguson said. “We trained them. We sent 85 of them off, and they went out and made a beautiful piece of art that was theirs. I never saw the location.”

Although he gained experience filming such a personal subject as religion, Ferguson said “Jerusalem” proved an even more difficult challenge because of the numerous claims to origin in the city, as well as the many different groups of people living there today in different levels of peace.

“You have to recognize and embrace this idea that Jerusalem is many cities, one on top of the other, and side-by-side,” he said. “Yet, they’re often completely unaware of one another’s realities.“

While different sides pushed Ferguson to further different perspectives of who owns the land or who was there first, these issues were irrelevant to his objectives.

“I think it’s actually inconsequential who was here first,” Ferguson said. “The point is that so many different groups love this place for legitimate reasons.”

The narrative of “Jerusalem” revolves around three 15- to 18-year-old girls, and Ferguson said that demographic worked best because his subjects weren’t blindly following their parents’ ideologies like their younger counterparts might, or serving in the military like their elders. More than this, he said they have a sense of curiosity that is lost in the course of growing up.

“That’s where the genesis of the story really came from,” he said. “To realize that these three young women, who were curious, knew very little about one another’s narratives.”

In closing, Ferguson said the principles he and his cast learned during the experience — of trust, drive and cooperation — could be the pillars of a coexisting world in the future.

“It shows what we are capable of when we have a common purpose, a common goal, and when we can build a common trust together to get beyond the initial assumptions we have of one another,” Ferguson said.