Arabia 3D, opening at the Smithsonian’s Johnson IMAX Theater this Friday, February 18, follows Saudi Arabian film student, Hamzah Jamjoom, in his return home from studying in the United States as he makes a film about his heritage. Through present-day documentary of his life there along with historical re-enactments and computer-generated graphics, we get a glimpse into a culture and country that, for many of us, feels like a world (and literally is half-a-world) away.
Perhaps the most striking element of the film, both visually and conceptually, is the contrast of the vast desert landscape with the grand, flourishing metropolis of contemporary Saudi Arabia. It’s especially interesting when you consider the region’s history – Islamic culture dates back well over a thousand years, yet the country itself is practically brand new, having been founded in 1932.
The film does a good job of presenting both the past and present, shifting between Jamjoom’s own modern life as he examines his country’s roots and recreations of ancient times that focus mainly on Arabia’s two Golden Ages of wealth and knowledge.
This journey through time is also interspersed with smart animated graphics that illustrate geographical transitions and Arabia’s contributions to the arts and sciences (you can thank the Muslims for that 7th grade Algebra class). There are also some incredible scenes that take viewers below the Red Sea in search of sunken ships, across the desert on a camel caravan and into a Bedouin tent, and along the streets of today’s Saudi Arabia.
But the most captivating scene — hands down — is the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca where more than three million Muslims congregate to worship. Arabia 3D captures the moment in a way I’ve never seen any news outlet do before. An aerial view coveys the magnitude of the event, showing rows upon rows of people donned in white robes circling the Kaaba as they pray. When a low roar erupted through the sound system, I thought for a second there was a problem with the audio, until I realized it was the sound of three million people moving in unison as they knelt and bowed in religious ritual. It is truly an extraordinary scene.
This is all narrated by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren, along with Jamjoon, whose dream is to help pioneer a new film industry in Saudi Arabia and make films about his people. He’s already made huge strides — Arabia 3D is the first film to be shot from start to finish in his country.
Arabia 3D will open at the National Museum of Natural History’s Johnson IMAX Theater on February 18. Tickets are $9 and can be purchased in advance online or at the box office. Recommended for ages 10 and up.