Stars of a new documentary Jerusalem — Nadia Tadros (left), Farah Ammouri and Revital Zacharie — join director Daniel Ferguson at the Ontario Science Centre after an advanced screening of the film. Photo by Evan Boudreau.

Jerusalem divided but shockingly similar

  • March 9, 2014

TORONTO - When three young women, strangers to each other, were brought together in Jerusalem by an adventurous movie director they were surprised to discover how much they had in common.

“We laugh at the same jokes. We like the same movies. We speak the same languages,” said Nadia Tadros.

In no time at all, the Christian, Muslim and Jewish teens became friends. None of them had expected that to happen when they agreed to participate in a film called Jerusalem. That part of the script wrote itself.

Jerusalem isn’t a film about the city landscape as much as it is about the Old City as a territory divided between three faiths that share a common history and an overlapping culture. Quebec filmmaker Daniel Ferguson set out to make a film that showed the similarities of a people divided by religion but linked by history and land. He made 14 trips to the Holy Land over a period of five years to scout, cast and document the daily lives of three local girls of three different faiths.

“I was shocked that we do a lot of the same things,” said Tadros, a Christian Palestinian. “We have the same mentality and that is a good thing. Being more harmonious in Jerusalem is very much possible. I hope everybody in Jerusalem can figure this out.”

Tadros acknowledged the differences between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but she discovered many cultural compatibilities with the other two film subjects, Farah Ammouri and Revital Zacharie.

“What I wanted is for people to go, oh my that’s what it is all about, it is a holy place for all three faiths,” said Ferguson. “If you begin to understand that all three faiths are attached to it (Jerusalem) you begin to understand some of the issues involved in the city as well. That is what I wanted as a dramatic pay off.

“I initially wasn’t sure if I wanted to tackle the subject matter because it has certainly been well trodden,” he said. “We wanted a very human story.”

Finding the right people to tell that story took Ferguson and his crew about a year and involved more than 300 interviews. Tadros, whose family practices both Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions, was cast first. She said she was curious about the neighbouring faiths and thought the film might be a first step towards breaking down barriers that prevent people of different Jerusalem religious backgrounds from getting to know each other.

“As Palestinians it is very hard to break the boundaries with Israelis, very hard, very hard,” she said. “It is good to break rules, it is about you being human. Human beings have to communicate and be happy with each other and get to know each other in general which is the message we tried to (convey).”

Like Tadros, Ammouri and Zacharie were also curious. Ammouri, a Palestinian Muslim, saw the film as an opportunity to learn more about faiths that were so close yet seemed so far away.

“As Palestinians we are Muslims and Christians, and so I already had an idea of Christianity,” said Ammouri, who attended Rosary Sisters High School, one of Jerusalem’s Catholic schools, with Tadros although they didn’t know each other prior to filming. “Throughout the movie I was able to become comfortable around Revital and ask her questions about misconceptions I had (about Judaism).”

During the filming Ferguson came to realize that the curiosity of his three subjects was common among Jerusalem’s youth.

“There is a lot of curiosity on the part of these three young girls and it is a part of a lot of young people,” he said. “They are curious about each other and they are willing to go outside of their comfort zone.”

Just being in the film pushed Zacharie’s comfort zone.

“I wasn’t sure at the beginning if I wanted to take part in the movie,” she said. “I thought about it a lot and in the end I decided I would do it because I thought it was an opportunity to somehow represent the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.”

After joining the cast, Zacharie came to a surprising conclusion about Tadros and Ammouri, and their respective faiths.

“I was very surprised to see how much we have in common,” she said.

That view, however, is not widespread in Jerusalem. While making the film, the cast and crew encountered several tense situations. Ferguson said he was asked to change some locations to ensure the peace. “To do this film we had to work with constituencies who literally hate each other within Christianity, within Islam and within Judaism,” he said. “Often we’d go to a location and someone would say, ‘There are Muslims and Christians in this film? Get out!’

“We had a lot of that. There were these little hatreds amongst these groups and that surprised me. We had to navigate around that, but our goal was to be inclusive.”

Now that the film is ready for release Ferguson hopes viewers will be drawn in by the same curiosity that attracted his cast.

“Everyone is curious about Jerusalem,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your religion is. A lot of people do want to go there and they are frightened by whatever their perception of the security situation is. My ultimate goal was that no matter if you are Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox or Reformed or Conservative — whatever your denomination is — that something in this film would speak to you and you would be astonished by something in this film at the same time.”

The film combines 3D filming, aerial footage and first-person accounts to produce a unique visual perspective of the Old City. The images are stunning, but Ferguson hopes audiences will be captivated by the commonality between the religiously diverse subjects.

“Now these girls are ambassadors for co-existence,” said Ferguson. “I hope this film and others like it can go a long way towards breaking down some of those invisible walls.”

Jerusalem opens March 7 in Toronto at the Ontario Science Centre.

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