MacGillivray Freeman Films’ latest Giant Screen film, Arabia, traces the fascinating history and modern-day life of this surprisingly beautiful Middle Eastern country. Adeptly photographed by Brad Ohland, the film reveals a culture rooted in religion but also in a pursuit of knowledge. Directed and produced by veteran filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, the film is a favorable study into this oft-maligned (at least by Westerners) people and religion.
Narrated by Helen Mirren, the film follows Arabian film student, Hamzah Jamjoom, as he returns to his home country of Saudi Arabia to create a film on his native culture. Shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, Hamzah’s journey frames the film’s examination of Arabia’s storied history, focusing mainly on its two Golden Ages — the first a golden age of wealth and the second of knowledge.
The film first explores the kingdom of the Nabataens who 2,000 years ago brought about the first Arabian Golden Age. Based on the wealth gained from the trade of frankincense, the Nabateans thrived and had at their center the lost city of Petra. As expected, the film provides beautiful imagery of ancient structures carved into rock faces and the rarely visited tombs of the Nabateans. The second Golden Age was brought on by the Prophet Mohammed, and was not only driven by religion but also by knowledge. A highly interesting topic, the film spends a good deal exploring this second boom of Arabian culture which expanded through three continents. Mostly through appealing animation sequences, the film traces the Arabian advancements in the arts and science.
Intermixed with this historical exploration are scenes of contemporary Arabian life. There’s no indication of controversy or political strife here. Rather, one is presented with an agreeable even charming Saudi Arabia. Through its main character of Hamzah, the film offers a surprising glimpse into the modern-day Arab mindset. Unlike popular Hollywood films that continually vilify Arabs as religious extremists or terrorists, Arabia takes a refreshingly positive look at contemporary Arabian people. Hamzah expresses the struggle of his generation quite well in their desire to remain faithful to their traditions, but also their eagerness to embrace innovation and progress. Such revelations pepper the film — even visual stunners, like the unexpected thriving sea life in the Red Sea wonderfully photographed by celebrated underwater filmmaker Howard Hall.
Shot in 3D, Arabia has satisfactory 3D visuals, but with a film such as this with its focus on education and its wide array of scenic shots, enjoyment of the film does not necessitate 3D viewing. The 3D does brighten and liven the many animated sequences, providing energy to the educational aspects of the film. And the 3D is probably best used in the previously mentioned Red Sea portions of the film where tiny fish are photographed in such vibrant and astounding imagery.
Arabia is another suitable addition to the already lengthy MacGillivray Freeman film resume. Although the film explores contemporary Arabian life, it never delves into the political tensions between the Middle East and Westerners. Rather it is a good-natured, benign look into Arabia and its long but intriguing history.