Documentary lifts a veil on Islam

Baltimore filmmaker bridges cultures and centuries to tell a story that is unknown to most Americans.


April 29, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Talk about a cross-cultural moment.

The year was 1999, and Baltimore's Rob Gardner, an Emmy Award-winning maker of PBS documentaries, was in Iran as the first American filmmaker allowed to work there since the 1979 revolution -- you know, the one we saw every night on ABC's "Nightline." Gardner was filming a documentary on the highly sensitive subject of Islam for public television.

But the work was not going so well one day. Gardner had a crew of 60 people, huge by documentary standards, and had just lost several days of production time with most of those folks standing around, because a local man had rented him a truck that broke down in the middle of the desert.

"I lost my temper, and I lost it in the middle of a hotel lobby surrounded by people," the 53-year-old Gardner remembers.

"And I stood with the translator beside me just railing at this guy. And he was a working-class guy and a pretty devout Muslim. And one of the crew members came to me later and said, "You know, you've really upset this guy, because in Islamic terms, you've called him a thief."

Gardner decided he had to go back and publicly apologize to man, but he wondered if it would be enough.

"So, I went to the guy and I apologized to him. And then he started to rail at me, using the Koran to beat me over the head for being a thug," Gardner says, wondering what to do, as the translator grew visibly more and more uncomfortable with the confrontation.

"And so I said to the man, 'In our Christian Bible, it says forgive and be forgiven,' which was, like, the only scripture that I knew. And, suddenly, his eyes filled with tears, and he embraced me, you know, because we sort of went book-to-book."

Outside of that one conflict, Gardner says, the 45 days spent filming in Iran were remarkable in terms of cultural harmony. In fact, he says, in many ways it was a dream shoot. His American film crew was welcomed and accommodated by its Iranian counterparts in ways he had never seen in his more than 30 years of nonfiction filmmaking from Antarctica to the Middle East.

1,000 years of history

The finished product, a 2 1/2 -hour film titled "Islam: Empire of Faith," airing May 8 on PBS, certainly seems to support Gardner's claim of an inspired production. With its arresting architecture, swooping camera movement and detail-rich settings, "Islam" has the look of a big-budget feature film.

But the history told here -- about 1,000 years of it from the birth of Islam to 1600 -- is just as impressive, especially in the way Gardner uses narrator Ben Kingsley and several Islamic experts from American universities to feed a wealth of information into the narrative of Mohammed the prophet, the religion he founded and the culture that grew up around it.

"We're looking at what's largely a hidden history in the sense that this is something new to most Americans. It's a history that's been veiled behind suspicion and misunderstanding in the West, probably since before the Crusades," Gardner said.

"It's amazing to me -- or amusing to me -- that probably most Americans can tell you more about the boxer Muhammad Ali than they could about Mohammed the prophet. And yet, Mohammed the prophet is one of the most important figures in the last 2,000 years of human history," Gardner said during an interview in the lovely, old, rambling Roland Park home he shares with his wife, Char, two "ratty cats" and a Jack Russell terrier. Char Gardner is associate producer on the documentary.

But how to tell a history that took place before photography in a medium that primarily speaks in a language of pictures?

"This film is a real attempt to push beyond the standard historical documentary, which tends to be slow [camera] movement over flatwork of art and photographs of one kind or another," Gardner said, describing the documentary style for which Ken Burns is best known.

"I wanted to evoke the past in a big way -- in an epic way, I guess you could say. Because we cover so much time in so many countries, I wanted to see big scenes with lots of horses and camels and hundreds of people and the beautiful architecture of Islam," he explained.

"We wanted to mix the visual vocabulary of motion pictures -- along with that of music videos and advertising, because we use a lot of slow motion and extreme wide-angle lenses and camera movement -- in a documentary context."

Creative partners

Even though "Islam" was funded at the high end of international documentary filmmaking with a budget of about $1.5 million, Gardner's goals for it visually were still somewhat grandiose. But this is where thorough research and some very good fortune came into play in the person of Majid Mirfakhraei, a 49-year-old Iranian art director and motion picture production designer.

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