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With its arresting architecture, swooping camera movement and
detail-rich settings, Islam: Empire of Faith has the look of a
big-budget feature film. The 21/2-hour documentary airs tonight on
But the history told here -- about 1,000 years from the birth of Islam to 1600 -- is just as impressive, especially in the way filmmaker Rob 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," said Gardner, an Emmy-winning documentary director who in 1999 became the first American filmmaker allowed to work in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
"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 wanted to evoke the past in a big way -- "in an epic way," he said. "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."
"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."
Islam was funded at the high end of international documentary filmmaking with a budget of about $1.5 million, and Gardner's goals for it visually were somewhat grandiose. 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.
"We wound up forming a kind of creative partnership with a full-fledged Iranian movie company, which allowed us to have all the prop support, costume support and large crew support to bring this kind of story to life in the visual way that we did. As the art director, Majid worked miracles," Gardner said, citing the 300 costumes, dozens of camels, horses, armies of soldiers and whole villages that Mirfakhraei created for the film.
"Majid built for us a replica of the most holy building in Islam, which is the Kaaba in Mecca. It's as high as a four-story building," Gardner said.
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