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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.

Gardner 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?
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?
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?
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 eye-opener.

Of 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 documentary?
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?
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.

Q: Does any of the research or facts you've come across during this documentary stand out significantly to you?
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?
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?
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?
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 documentary's production?
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 ideas.

Q: 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?
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 between peoples?
One cannot fail to be deeply moved by the interior space of the Alhambra 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 existed?
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.

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