When Jerusalem 3D director Daniel Ferguson first explored the city, it was with a guide all the way from Australia.
After getting in contact with Arthur Hagopian online, Ferguson asked the Sydneysider to fly over.
Hagopian, an Armenian journalist and former secretary to the Armenian Patriarchate, hadn’t flown in a plane in 20 years – not since he left Jerusalem.
“He met me and he showed me around Jerusalem for my very first time and he was sort of a mentor figure,” Ferguson says.
“He just knew everyone and had this chutzpah about him.”
In Jerusalem 3D, a new IMAX documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, Ferguson wanted to solve some of the tiny city’s great mysteries and show why it’s still so sacred to billions of people.
But that meant gaining access to holy Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites.
It was through people like Hagopian that Ferguson learned the key thing was not money, but trust.
The director would end up travelling to Jerusalem 14 times over three and a half years trying to gain just that.
“It really for me was having Shabbat dinners with Jewish families, or being invited into Armenian homes or breaking the fast with Muslims,” he says.
“There was a lot of breaking bread and many, many cups of tea to convince them we were doing something that was balanced and not propaganda.”
In the end, they were able to capture rare aerial footage of the Old City and gain unprecedented access to holy sites including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, which took three years of negotiations alone.
Aside from getting the footage, there was the mammoth task of squeezing the story of Jerusalem into a 43-minute documentary.
“That was actually one of the things that terrified me,” Ferguson says.
“Every book I read, I was out of breath by the time we hit the crusades… it’s so dense.”
They quickly abandoned the idea of telling a straightforward history and instead decided to explore the question “why Jerusalem?” – why the city is still so significant to so many.
Archaeologist Dr Jodi Magness and three teenage girls of different faiths – Farah Ammouri (Muslim), Nadia Tadros (Greek Orthodox and Catholic) and Revital Zacharie (Jewish) – try to answer that question through their own tour through the city.
“Jodi handles the why part of things from an academic point of view and the three girls answer the why from a purely emotional point of view,” Ferguson says.
And what he found was that for the three young women in particular, the locations overlapped even if the stories and family connections were different.
He hopes telling Jerusalem through the eyes of four different people – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular – can lead to more understanding and tolerance.
“All these narratives bubble up together in Jerusalem and sadly for too long, they have denied each other’s attachment… but there is room in my view for all of these,” he says.
“And that’s the message of the film ultimately, is that there’s is this dignity in difference.”
* Jerusalem 3D releases in IMAX Sydney on April 10