Islamic Culture at 300 Years per Hour
Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Most Americans could tell you more about the boxer Muhammad Ali than they could about Muhammad the prophet," says filmmaker Robert Gardner, whose latest project is "Islam: Empire of Faith" (May 8, PBS, check local listings). "And yet," says Gardner, whose three years of work on the project took him to Iran as the first American filmmaker to work there in 20 years, "Muhammad the prophet is one of the most important figures in the last 2,000 years of human history."
In keeping with the magnitude of that story, this public television event is presented as the third in the PBS "Empires" series of historical programs telling the stories of great empires that changed the world. "Islam," the three-hour special, is not about the religion of Islam as much as the culture. "It's about the arc of culture for this 1,000 years of civilization and how this civilization intertwines with Western civilization in a number of extraordinary and surprising ways," Mr. Gardner says.
His approach differs from many documentary makers. "We were looking for a way to push the historical documentary from beyond the traditional paradigm of moves over flatwork of art and photographs and to try to evoke the past in a big way," Gardner says. "I wanted to see big scenes with lots of horses and camels and hundreds of people and the beautiful architecture of Islam."
The series includes many reenactments. "We created a very different kind of documentary that includes over 300 costumes and a tremendous number of animals and stunts and architecture."
As the film points out, 20 percent of the world's population is Muslim, yet the religion suffers from what Islamic scholars call a serious misperception.
"One of the reasons, perhaps, is that it's not about religion, it's about other things," says Jonathan Bloom, professor of Islamic and ancient art at Boston College and a series consultant. "Our prejudice is not that we're listening to what this religion is really about, but to all sorts of baggage that goes along with it. …