Q&A with Director Rob Gardner
Documentary film producer, director
and writer Robert Gardner's
career spans over 30 years. He has been nominated for an
Academy Award, won three National Emmy Awards, four regional
Emmys, and a duPont Columbia award for excellence in
broadcast journalism, among other special awards. His most
recently broadcast films include The Barbarians and
Islam: Empire of Faith.
served as director of Cities of Light. He and his
crew carried out its filming over an 18-month period.
Production was filmed in high definition. It included
extensive shooting of art, landscapes, and architecture in
Spain, as well as re-enactment production in studio
facilities in Lithuania (one of the most cost-effective
locations in Europe).
Gardner recently sat down to talk about his experiences
while filming Cities of Light and offer insight into
the importance of its production.
Q: In what way do you believe this documentary's
production will affect viewers?
Rob Gardner: The real power of television is that it
touches millions and millions of people, and good television
makes those people think. There is almost nothing more
important, in the world we now live in, than for people to
understand that cultures different from their own have
legitimacy and value -- and that to ignore this is to invite
trouble. I think this is the central lesson of the film we
are trying to make.
Q: In what way has this documentary's production affected
you? Has the experience differed from other documentaries
you've worked on?
RG: Any documentary becomes a process of discovery, and
the story of Islamic Spain has been a great discovery for
me. The story is vivid, and the lessons are very important
to us today.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish by producing and
directing this documentary?
RG: I hope we will show how history teaches us that
people who embrace complexity and diversity in human life --
however imperfectly -- will prosper, while those who embrace
bigotry, fundamentalism, and exclusion will almost certainly
come to grief.
Q: Has this documentary helped you to understand yourself
better? If so, in what way?
RG: We are all born into our own set of
misunderstandings and stereotypes about other people, some
of these dating back to the Crusades. This is true of me,
too, and I think that learning the amazing story of the
ascendancy and eventual fall of Islamic Spain was a real
course, I was aware of the overall history of Islamic
civilization as a result of my work on Islam: Empire of
Faith, but the rise and fall of Islamic Spain really
underlines the risks we face today, when forces are at work
to divide people and promote ideas of absolutism. These were
the forces that eventually brought down a real "golden age"
during the Middle Ages, as our story shows. And, it's made
me re-examine my own feelings about our global world and
both the hazards and hope that the future holds for us.
Q: What were some major challenges in making this
RG: This is a big, complex, and epic story. The
challenges include the functional ones, like doing the story
justice in terms of the scope of our production, and
intellectual ones, like making this important and complex
story clear and accessible to a large television audience --
one that I hope will be an international audience.
Q: Which individuals that you met during the
documentary's production stand out most in your mind?
RG: For me, it's always the scholars -- the men and
women who have spent 20 or 30 years of their lives studying
some part of history -- that really bring the story alive
for me. David
Nirenberg, a scholar of Medieval Jewish life, who has
written on the human costs of bigotry and violence, has
impressed me quite a bit, but we are talking to some of the
best minds working on this complex subject.
Does any of the research or facts you've come across during
this documentary stand out significantly to you?
RG: The thing that comes back to me again and again is
how relevant this subject is for our world today. I love
history, and I love when history shows us patterns of human
behavior in religion, politics, and ordinary life that seem
to be universal. Islamic Spain shows a rise and fall of a
very rich culture, a complex culture that struggled with
many of the things that face us today -- diverse
populations, nationalism, fundamentalism, power, and war.
When complexity and diversity was embraced, the culture
flourished. When fundamentalism and absolutism became
dominant, the culture became toxic and failed.
Q: You once said, ďThis Islam thing is the biggest thing
I ever did, and itís the hardest thing I ever did," about
your previous documentary, Islam: Empire of Faith.
How does that experience compare with Cities of Light?
RG: The two projects are very different, each with
different challenges. In a way, Islam: Empire of Faith,
which covered a thousand years of history largely unknown to
most Americans, was a broad overview of a history that took
place all over the world. This film is a more focused story,
though it also covers a large sweep of time. I feel a real
responsibility about this new project, because I think the
ideas in it are very, very important and I think making
these ideas engaging in a television context and accessible
to a large audience will be the biggest challenge.
Q: Have you received any criticism for choosing to
participate in the making of Cities of Light?
RG: No, though some people have been surprised at my
working on the story because itís importance was not clear
to them. Part of my job will be to make sure people
understand why this history is important.
Q: What is most enlightening about this documentary?
RG: I think a lot of us feel kind of hopeless about the
upheavals going on in the world today, and the mistakes that
are being made in dealing with them. What is enlightening
about this film is that it shows people of different faiths
and value systems not only can live together, but that they
have lived together, with great cultural benefit to
everyone. But it is also a cautionary tale, in that diverse
cultures must be nurtured or the forces of absolutism and
fundamentalism -- from all sides -- will destroy them.
Q: What would you say is the most amazing about this
RG: Well, we are combining very large scale,
feature-film style re-enactments with documentary footage of
the great Islamic architecture and the beautiful landscapes
of Spain. I think this will give us a wonderful visual and
emotional platform to help examine the important ideas that
are at the center of the story. And, some of the most
important scholars on the subject will illuminate these
When filming the documentary, Lost Empire of Tiawanaku, you
unclipped your camera and jumped right into the scene. Did
you play as active a role when filming Cities of Light?
RG: Iím a pretty active director, and I seem to spend a
lot of time jumping up from the monitor or running into the
set to move people or things around or to act out the action
I want to take place. Sometimes, when working with the stunt
men for a battle scene, for instance, we get pretty physical
trying to figure out the best way to make the scene work.
But I have always enjoyed working this way.
Q: How has learning about the cultural treasures of Spain
influenced your perception of a world that is now so often
plagued by violence, corruption, and disharmony existing
RG: One cannot fail to be deeply moved by the interior
space of the
in Granada, to see the extraordinary richness and beauty
of this great Islamic palace, and to understand that it is
only a shadow, a ghost of what once was. All of its beauty,
its tremendous sophistication, could not save the culture
that created it. The forces that eventually brought Islamic
Spain to its sad end are with us today, and they are no less
dangerous. Violent bigotry, absolutism, simple ignorance and
disrespect, fundamentalism -- all of these dark facets of
the human heart are at work today in extreme margins of the
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish world communities -- or any
other faith community, for that matter. We must learn to
understand what a terrible cost these dark forces can bring
and how we can guard against them.
Q: What is your perception of the Islamic Spain that once
RG: It was a wonderful and complex time and place. It
was not without flaws, not without violence and problems,
but at its best, at its richest, it was truly a bright light
in what was largely a dark and ignorant Medieval landscape.
Its loss is one of the great tragedies in history.