Jake Eberts: Film producer, philanthropist, McGill alumnus

Eberts: "Nothing gives me a greater sense of well-being, of being 'home,' than returning to Montreal, and McGill, for these events." / Photo: Owen Egan
Eberts: "Nothing gives me a greater sense of well-being, of being 'home,' than returning to Montreal, and McGill, for these events." / Photo: Owen Egan

By Pascal Zamprelli

On March 22, McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies and Oscar-winning producer and McGill alumnus Jake Eberts will host a special fundraising screening of Mr. Eberts’s latest movie, Journey to Mecca. This IMAX docudrama tells the amazing story of Ibn Battuta, the greatest explorer of the Old World, and follows his first pilgrimage from Tangier to Mecca in the 14th century.

The event will mark the film’s Montreal public premiere, and will be followed by a panel discussion. It will take place on Monday, March 22, at 6 p.m. at the Imax Telus Theatre in the Montreal Science Centre. Tickets cost $100, $25 for students, with all proceeds going to support the work of the Institute of Islamic Studies. For more information call McGill’s Event Registrar at 514-398-1248 or email at montreal.registrar@mcgill.ca.

Q: What gave you the initial idea for this project?

I have been travelling in the Middle East since the 1960s, and, although not a particularly religious person myself, I have always been interested in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, not only as religions but as a way of life. What appealed to me mostly about Islam was the extraordinary hospitality I encountered throughout the Middle East, and the contrast between my very positive experience in that part of the world and the very negative impression held by most Westerners. In addition, I had long been fascinated by explorers, such as Speke, Livingstone, and particularly Sir Richard Burton, one of the first non-Muslims to write extensively about entering Mecca. Then [producers] Taran [Davies] and Dominic [Cuningham Reid] introduced me to the character of Ibn Battuta, one of the greatest explorers of all time, who wrote extensively (and beautifully) about his travels in his famous book The Rihla. I was hooked.

What was the most interesting thing that happened while making the film?

There were many interesting things that happened, including being immersed in Muslim culture. But perhaps the most interesting was the awakening of interest in the Hajj by Muslims who had never been to Mecca. Many Muslim members of the crew experienced what it was like to be a Muslim and to go on a pilgrimage for the first time. On the other hand, many non-Muslim crew members had their first glimpse of the hospitality, warmth, and simple yet wonderful culture which is an integral part of Islam.

It was indeed a great surprise to many people associated with the film to discover the humour, gentleness and compassion that is found throughout the Middle East, which is in stark contrast to what we Westerners hear in the news almost every day.

How are this film and the event surrounding it important for East-West dialogue?

We live in a video-dominated world. These days, information is much more easily assimilated through images than words. Very few people will ever read Ibn Battuta’s The Rihla, yet millions will get to travel with him to Mecca, experience the Hajj, and learn something about Muslim culture via “Journey to Mecca.” One of the world’s greatest, and sadly most enduring problems, is the endless strife in the Middle East, much of it caused by a complete lack of understanding, on both sides, of each other’s culture. Just imagine what good could be achieved by converting the enormous time and staggering amounts of money being spent on wars in the Middle East to peaceful purposes. Just imagine what it would be like to build schools in Gaza, or hospitals in Afghanistan, or museums in Iraq, instead of the endless spilling of blood so familiar to us these days. Just imagine a child waking up and looking forward to going to school, or a father and a mother happily going off to work, instead of worrying where the next suicide bomber will strike, or exploding rocket will land? Just imagine…

How does it feel to team up with your alma mater?

Over the years I have had the enormous pleasure of showing many films at McGill. Nothing gives me a greater sense of well-being, of being ‘home,’ than returning to Montreal, and McGill, for these events. Renewing old acquaintances, strolling through the campus, walking down memory lane, gives me so much joy. The McGill welcome is positively Islamic.

I have many fond memories, too many to mention all of them here. Redmen football games in Molson Stadium, the Red and White Review (especially My Fur Lady), hanging out in Redpath Library (who was that beautiful girl always studying in the far left hand corner that I never had the courage to approach? I wonder what ever happened to her…), Saturday night parties at the Alpha Delta Phi house (now torn down) on McTavish Street, the relief when we saw the first signs of spring and the snow began to melt, wearing my Scarlet Key sweater for the first time, working on the McGill Daily, Graduation Day with my proud (and relieved) parents…so many wonderful memories.