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Movie REview

‘Jerusalem’ documentary shows rare views inside city

Musicians lead a Bar Mitzvah boy toward the Western Wall in “Jerusalem.”George Duffield

The job of the sort of
IMAX documentary that screens at museums is simple: fascinate, educate, and visually wow an audience of both school field-trippers and their chaperones, and get off the stage in about three-quarters of an hour. With this as its tricky and sometimes contradictory criterion, “Jerusalem” succeeds rather nicely.

“Jerusalem is the crucible of coexistence,” said writer, producer, and first-time director Daniel Ferguson, on hand at the recent world premiere of the film at the Museum of Science’s Mugar Omni Theater. “Why are people fighting over this little city on a hill?”

He and his coproducers admitted “there was nothing that was not complicated” when it came to filming. At the crossroads and flashpoint of three major religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — Jerusalem is “the most contested piece of real estate on earth,” intones narrator Benedict Cumberbatch (PBS’s “Sherlock”).


The narrative, such as it is, centers on three young women, each a representative of the city’s three major religions. There’s Farah Ammouri, a Muslim; Nadia Tadros, Greek Orthodox and Catholic; and Revital Zacharie, whose Judaism has roots in Tunisia and Poland. We follow each as she saunters (in a rather staged way) through her distinctly separate quarter of the 1-square-mile Old City. Remarks one of the girls, “We don’t know enough about each other.”

Sandwiched in and around the girls’ commentary are low-altitude helicopter shots of the city (the first allowed in some 20 years), aerial and time-lapse footage of nearby monuments such as the fortress at Masada, thoughts from Dr. Jodi Magness, an archeologist involved in several excavations in Israel, and animated historical maps.

“Jerusalem” excels in its rare views inside holy sites like the Dome of the Rock and behind the scenes at religious ceremonies. The filmmakers smartly hit the Western Wall during Passover, as worshipers slip messages into the cracks. We visit Al-Aqsa Mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan, and the Via Dolorosa, the street where Jesus is said to have carried his cross, on Good Friday. Viewers are treated to a mesmerizing vision of hundreds of candle-holding pilgrims cramming into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during its annual Ceremony of the Holy Fire.


“The city of Jerusalem is the sum of many civilizations, one on top of the other,” Ferguson said, “What we’ve tried to do here is show another side of Jerusalem, one not seen in the media.”

And the film does. For kids especially, “Jerusalem” provides a visually stunning overview. Impressive CGI “reconstructions” show how these temples might have appeared in their heyday. But parents and teachers might need to fill in one gap: Where are the checkpoints, manned by armed soldiers, stationed around Jerusalem? These are outside the Old City, but still loom large. One can understand the focus on spiritually infused imagery to paint a dream of hopeful harmony. But the failure to mention the military presence, and the menace of mistrust, feels like part of Jerusalem’s ancient walls have been whitewashed.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at