BERLIN – A docudrama filmed on Assateague Island and in other parts of Maryland will premiere on PBS next Tuesday.
On Dec. 26, “The Sultan and the Saint,” a historical film that dramatizes the dialogues between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Muhammad Al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade, will air on national television.
Earlier last year, Baltimore-based Unity Productions Foundation began filming parts of the docudrama on the beaches of Assateague Island. Over the course of several days, filmmakers transformed the barrier island into the port city of Damietta, Egypt, where hundreds of locals were cast as clashing crusaders and Muslim armies.
“The Sultan and the Saint” tells the little-known story of St. Francis of Assisi and Egyptian Sultan Muhammad Al-Kamil, two men of different faiths who met on a bloody battlefield and found common ground. The film takes place in 1219 during the height of the crusades – a religious war between Muslims and Christians – and depicts the compassion of both St. Francis and Al-Kamil during an attack on Damietta, Egypt.
Alex Kronemer, co-founder of Unity Productions Foundation and director for “The Sultan and the Saint,” said the docudrama highlights a turning point in the crusades.
“It is telling the true story of a meeting between Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt, which occurred really at one of the worst periods of the crusades,” he said. “It ended up being a medium of peace that began the process of ending the crusades.”
Kronemer said the film is relevant to some of the conflicts found in society today.
“We are living in the most heightened time of division, disunity and distrust in my lifetime, and I’m almost 60 years old,” he said. “’The Sultan and the Saint’ goes back to another period in world history when, very similarly, dehumanization of your enemies was at a high point and it led to enormous violence, not only against Muslims and Christians over the battles of Jerusalem and control of the Middle East, but even as the rhetoric of dehumanization and distrust arose, it led to the worst massacres of Jews before the Holocaust.”
Kronemer said he hopes the film will generate a discussion from its viewers and show the importance of communication and understanding.
“We’re not quite there yet, but we seem to be moving in a direction not so different from that, so the importance of the story is a reminder of that,” he said. “Also, Francis of Assisi remains today one of the most popular figures of Christianity and he was a dynamic and charismatic person … We are trying to bring his story to life and perhaps it can inspire people to be a model for peacemaking.”
Kronemer said the production of “The Sultan and the Saint” utilized the beaches of Assateague Island and an abandoned factory in Baltimore to imitate ancient cities in Egypt, Germany, France and Italy. With the help of computer-generate images and filming techniques, Kronemer said the barrier island quickly transforms into the deserts of ancient Egypt.
“It’s the magic of film,” he said. “Add a few CGI effects and suddenly you’re in the Sahara.”
While “The Sultan and the Saint” was the first film Unity Productions Foundation has shot in Assateague Island, Kronemer commended local businesses and actors for their support.
“The local businesses were extremely supportive of our time there and I think everyone really enjoyed it. The beach was empty and the ponies didn’t give us too much trouble,” he joked. “It was good.”
Kronemer’s company, Unity Productions Foundation, is a nonprofit film production and educational company that employs its films, communication material and in-house programs to initiate interfaith and civic dialogues among Muslims, Christians, Jews and more. He encourages individuals to watch the film, host broadcast parties and begin discussions on social media using the hashtag “#SultanSaintPBS”.
“First and foremost, it’s a great program, a great story and people will enjoy it,” he said. “Secondly, it does speak to the conflict of our day and I think provides both hope and a model for people in their daily lives to make the world a better place.”
“The Sultan and the Saint” will air on Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. in most locations. Individuals can check their local listings by visiting www.pbs.org/tv_schedules/.
Kronemer said the national broadcast on PBS is just one of the many screenings of “The Sultan and the Saint” held this year. He said the film has already debuted in Egypt and other locations in which the film is set and will be screened in the Vatican in May.
“It’s already had quite the push … and we anticipate in the next year to really do that,” he said.