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BMZ Review: Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta
By Ann Coates


Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta
Written by: Ann Coates
Source: Big Movie Zone
Date: March 23, 2009


Category: Reviews

Medieval traveler, Ibn Battuta, though a folk hero in the Muslim world is virtually unknown to the West.  Journey to Mecca gloriously tells the story of this great Moroccan who in 1325 set out from Tangier to travel to Mecca, the cultural center of Islam.  An unusual film, it is unlike any other Giant Screen movie I've encountered, a biopic guised as a documentary.  Directed by Bruce Neibaur, Mecca spends its first half journeying in the 14th century with Ibn Battuta, excellently portrayed by lead actor Chems Eddine Zinoun.  Once reaching his destination, the film intercuts the Hajj of the 1300s with the Hajj as it is experienced today.

The film begins with Ibn Battuta's farewell to his family in Morocco just before his long journey that will take him throughout the Middle East before reaching his target.  The audience thus travels with Ibn Battuta on his perilous journey encountering bandits and the inhospitable desert.  How historically accurate the journey we see on screen is a bit suspect -- the appearance of the suspicious-looking highwayman for instance -- but that is beside the point.  The film instead artfully chronicles the tenacious journey of a hero little-known in the Western world.

With a stubbornness that almost gets himself killed, Ibn Battuta journeys along the Mediterranean coast with plans to cross the Red Sea to Mecca.  When war curtails his initial plan, he is forced to travel north to Damascus and join a desert caravan heading south to the Hajj.  Here the film offers sweeping aerial images of the Middle Eastern deserts with its rolling sand dunes and occasional rocky outcrops.  A dry and dusty region, the images are nevertheless grand in their scale featuring a caravan of pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Once Ibn Battuta, and in effect we the audience, reach Mecca, the film presents a 14th century rendering of the many structures spliced with how they look today.   Expertly transitioning from one era to the next, we see for example what was a simple stone cairn turn into today's tall pillar of stone.  Where in Ibn Battuta's time there were a few thousand pilgrims, today's Hajj contains 3 million travelers all converging in Mecca.  Dramatic time lapse photography offers an incredible glimpse into the Hajj where millions of worshipers fill the Giant Screen.

Unlike most Giant Screen films, Mecca has very little narration.  Not burdened with an omniscient voice offering facts and figures, the film is able to dramatically portray Ibn Battuta and his dangerous trek to Mecca.  Rather than an overt educational film on Mecca or on the life of Ibn Battuta, the film looks to instill a human understanding of the traveler and the Islamic religion and culture.  It is not the facts of his journey or of the religion that is at the forefront, but ultimately the universality of his story.

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