For several millennia, the city of Jerusalem has been regarded as sacred by the people of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, and for centuries it’s been a source of inspiration and wonder — as well as a source of tension and grief. Now a new PBS documentary, Jerusalem: Center of the World, hosted by Ray Suarez, seeks to enlighten the general public on the story of this city with the most complex of histories. Filmmaker Andrew Goldberg‘s project — produced in tandem with a host of others who meticulously, studiously represent each of the major faiths concerned with Jerusalem — aims to provide a concise yet rich telling of its more than 4,000-year epic backstory. From the founding of the city to its role in the births of the world’s key monotheistic religions and the strife it has seen throughout its existence, Jerusalem attempts to adhere as closely as possible to the strict narrative, avoiding politics wherever possible.
“By definition, the name Jerusalem — in any period of history — is political,” Goldberg wholly concedes. “We set out to set down a clear historical record. But we were not out to do it with any sort of political means.” Some could be suspicious of his statement, especially as Goldberg’s previous directorial work includes features on anti-Semitism and the Armenian Genocide — subjects that hardly inspire objectivity. Nevertheless, Goldberg and his staff maintain a deft balancing act with this film, speaking with refreshing matter-of-factness on everything from the destruction of the first Temple of Solomon to Muslim leader Saladin’s merciful decision to spare the Christians’ Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the Third Crusade.
Of course, adhering to the ideal of a truly balanced perspective required an incredibly disciplined tenacity — since, according to Goldberg, virtually everyone they ran into attempted to influence their agenda. “I’m talking about the waiters in the restaurants; the people in the hotels; the drivers; the security guards; the person in the coffee shop sitting two tables over from you,” he says. “Everyone wants to influence the narrative when they hear that you’re covering a place like Jerusalem. When you go to Jerusalem, everyone you talk to, no matter their religion, no matter where they’re from, it’s as if they’ve had a course in media training,” he continues. ” And their media training has taught them how to talk to journalists. The word choices — everything. It’s really incredible.”
Understandably, Goldberg is quick to point out the pedigree of the people who did help shape the film’s narrative and who helped strike the balance that everyone involved sought to maintain. “A film like this requires a very large editorial board,” he explains. “Our editorial board includes three of the leading scholars in Islamic history with respect to that part of the world. Indeed, probably the three. … So any part of the history is vetted by people who have not only a historical or academic connection, but a personal connection. And that’s important, because it’s a story that deals with people’s daily lives and perceptions. This is not just an academic exercise.”
It’s also not, Goldberg insists, a statement on current struggles taking place in the region, though he’s keenly aware of the impulse many might have to attempt to interpret it as such. “I’m not out to prove any points,” he insists. “That said, look at the work that I’ve done: I’ve done two pieces for Now, I worked at ABC News before this, I did a piece on anti-Semitism before this, I did a piece on the Armenian Genocide. Prior to that, I did a piece that dealt with the Holocaust — public-affairs journalism is something that I’m regularly drawn to.” Still, Goldberg feels that he has effectively restrained his own impulse to allow current events to influence his objective. “I have felt a pull to address political issues, to do follow-ups, to use the film as a vehicle to explore this further,” he says. “But I’m resisting those, because I feel like what’s happening now, it’s a current event in the bigger picture of the story of this city, over which you’ve had events like this for 4,000 years.”
As he discusses the film’s mission and the expanse of its context, Goldberg is deliberately cautious with his words, as well he should be — as a filmmaker, he feels a great reverence and responsibility to his subject, and as a self-described secular person whose background happens to be Jewish, he is very aware of his potential vulnerabilities. As such, he is reluctant to make any declarations that might by misinterpreted regarding the multi-millennium struggle for this holiest of cities. “The analogy I use sometimes is that it’s like a divorce — a very angry, violent and bitter divorce,” he explains. “They love the child. But when the divorce dominates the family narrative in conversation, as a result in doing so, they severely damage the child. Because even though it’s the object of their affection that they love, it’s like they love it a little too much, and they hate the competing party so much. Lot of hatred over there.”
But Goldberg wants to emphasize that although the hatred and conflict may be what keeps Jerusalem in the headlines, it’s the common history, the similarities and the physical common ground that motivates this particular film. “When I came up with this project, the idea was to celebrate part of the Middle East — to celebrate the child who is, in many ways, the victim of the terrible divorce,” he reflects. “In many ways, it is a story of conflict, but it’s a story of conflict based on people’s love for a place, and I’d like to think that the love remains. … I’d like to think.”
Jerusalem: Center of the World premieres on PBS (HD) April 1.