Friday, January 15, 2016

#1,978. Arabia (2011)

Directed By: Greg MacGillivray

Starring: Hamzah Jamjoon, Helen Mirren

Tag line: "Travel to an exotic and extraordinary land"

Trivia: This movie was originally presented in 3-D

The desert... Mecca.... camels... oil.

For most of my life, these are the things that popped immediately to mind when thinking of the Arabian Peninsula, an area of the world that (aside from the above aspects) always seemed shrouded in mystery. Arabia, a 2011 IMAX film, peels back the curtain to reveal a country much different than I ever imagined.

Narrated by Helen Mirren and Hamzah Jamjoon (a film student and native Arabian), Arabia is both a gorgeously shot travelogue, detailing some of the country’s most stunning sights; and a history lesson, going back thousands of years to teach us about what is now known as Arabia’s two Golden Ages. Some of the images are familiar: there’s Riyadh, Mecca (both seen from the air), and the desert itself (the filmmakers even managed to capture a fierce sandstorm). A fair portion of Arabia is also dedicated to a religious ceremony in Mecca (truly an inspiring sequence), and there’s a brief discussion about camels, and why they’re the perfect beasts of burden for this corner of the globe.

Yet Arabia also surprised me on more than one occasion. Along with its large population of camels, the area is home to other several creatures as well, including, if you can believe it, baboons (per the film, when the Red Sea formed 25 million years ago, it trapped animals that were originally African in the peninsula, forcing them to adapt to the harsh, dry conditions). More surprising than this even is the fact that Arabia features an underwater exploration of various shipwrecks in the Red Sea, a few of which date back to ancient times. If there was one thing I didn’t expect to see in a documentary titled Arabia, it was undersea photography!

I also enjoyed learning about the country’s rich history. Some two thousand years ago, Arabia’s first Golden Age was brought about by the Nabataeans, desert dwellers who produced vast quantities of Frankincense, which was then shipped to all corners of the Roman Empire. Even more amazing was the area’s Second Golden Age, which occurred while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. During this period, Arabia was itself a vast empire, stretching across four continents. More importantly, it was the center of scientific discovery, giving birth to modern Algebra and advancing the study of physics centuries before Isaac Newton was born.

Like many of the fine films produced by MacGillivray Freeman (including Coral Reef Adventure and Journey into Amazing Caves), Arabia is a remarkable documentary that takes full advantage of its large-screen format (it was originally released in 3-D), a motion picture as beautiful as it is informative, shining a light on a civilization that, up until now, had remained almost entirely in the shadows.

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