By Siraj Wahab
A number of high-ranking Saudis and foreign diplomats led by Eastern Province Gov. Prince Muhammad bin Fahd and prominent Jeddah businessman Khaled Alireza traveled through space and time on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011, at the premiere of the spectacular new 3D film called "Arabia" at the Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Science and Technology Center's IMAX theater in Alkhobar.
The 45-minute feature is the first to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, and it spans 2,000 years of history in the Arabian Peninsula. Presented in the impressive IMAX surround film format, viewers enjoyed a mix of stunning photography, interesting history and contemporary commentary. It is produced and distributed by MacGillivray Freeman Films and presented in association with the Royal Geographical Society, the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
Well-known Saudi companies such as Xenel Group, Safra Co. Ltd., Flour Corp., Saudi Cable Co., Zahid Group, Alujain Corp., Hidada Ltd., and Tareq Taher provided major funding for the film.
As the only IMAX theater in Saudi Arabia, it was appropriate to present "Arabia" at Alkhobar's popular Scitech Center. Princes, bureaucrats, diplomats, academics, writers and other notable persons from across the Kingdom turned out for the screening. They included former Culture and Information Minister Iyad Madani, film director Greg MacGillivray, his wife Barbara MacGillivray, Arab News Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena, historian and best-selling author Robert Lacey, Scitech Director General Muhammad A. Garwan and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals Rector Khaled S. Al-Sultan.
"It is a fantastic movie," said Prince Muhammad after the premiere. "The film highlights the true spirit of Saudi Arabia."
"Arabia" is the realization of MacGillivray's vision as told through the eyes of 26-year-old Saudi film student Hamzah Jamjoom, who sets out across the country to explore its history and cultural and geographic diversity. Jamjoom is working on a master's degree in cinematography at DePaul University in Chicago, and his role in this film certainly will bolster the student's career.
The film spans 2,000 years of history and the three "golden ages" of Arabia -- the Nabatean Empire, the Islamic Age, and the current era of oil wealth and technological development.
Jamjoom travels to Riyadh, to the ancient tombs of Madain Saleh, and to the holy city of Makkah. There are some spectacular scenes, especially the aerial views of the Grand Mosque during the Haj, where the sight and sound of thousands of worshippers praying together is akin to a gentle ocean tide.
Although the film is intended for a global audience, Saudis were amazed by their nation's incredible geographic and cultural diversity when seen through the giant-screen views of the exotic peninsula's wilderness and vast cities. The IMAX camera in a helicopter drifts over these landscapes, and then maneuvers through traffic and crowds of people.
"It is dramatic," said Almaeena. "It is to be seen to be believed; there is no doubt that this producer (Greg MacGillivray) is a genius. Saudi Arabia needs a couple of such films to dispel all the wrong notions that people in the outside world have about us."
The film's magic carpet touches down in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. Along the way viewers experience giant dunes larger than the Eiffel Tower, pyramidal skyscrapers, Bedouin tribesmen, and other details of the fastest modernizing nation on earth. Well-staged scenes and even brief animation ably filled viewers in on the region's 2,000-year history.
From the earliest days of the Nabatean frankincense traders to the rise of Islam and the region's intellectual flowering, Arabia has twice risen to global prominence in what scholars say are two distinct Golden Eras: the Nabatean Era (100BCE to 400CE) and the Islamic Golden Era (700CE to 1400CE). During this period of "lost history," Arabian scholarship led to unprecedented advances in science, medicine, mathematics and the arts.
The film takes viewers to the ancient tombs of the lost city of Madain Saleh, where early Nabatean nomads established the region's first camel way station along the frankincense trade route more than 2,000 years ago. They visit the refreshing oasis village of Al-Ula where camel caravans sold their wares in the historic Bedouin markets and souks. They share the legendary hospitality of a Bedouin family and the warmth and glow of their lamp-lit tent. And they explore ancient shipwrecks beneath the Red Sea where today's archaeologists are searching through this sunken museum for clues to the secrets of the ancient past.
"Arabia" offers its audience an opportunity to travel to a distant land, see a country largely hidden from view, and experience a culture people know little about. The aim of the film is to educate, entertain and encourage understanding at a time when it is urgently needed. On a spectacular visual journey across this desert nation, the film portrays the people, religion, and geography of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
"Arabia" includes amazing aerials, historical imagery and reenactments, as well as heartfelt scenes of ordinary life among people living in exotic, sometimes surprising, locations. The climax of the film takes place at Makkah's Grand Mosque, where 3 million pilgrims gather each year for the Haj. As pilgrims from all over the globe go around the Holy Kaaba in peace and goodwill, viewers have an opportunity to glimpse the spirit of Islam during the largest international gathering in the world. A spirit without which Saudi Arabia would not exist as it does today.