On a cool March morning before sunrise, we left the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and made our way to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge to enter Jordan. The windows of our suburban were down, the cool desert breeze reviving those of us that did not get a full night’s sleep. We sat silently, lost in our own thoughts, as the rosy-pink morning sky brought a new day.
Mark sat up front, reading the day’s itinerary, as Shmuel Bernstein, our Israeli co-producer, drove; on reaching the border, Shmuel was not able to enter Jordan with us. Sitting next to me was Jim Glove, Associate Producer, whose responsibilities included keeping my blood sugar up, which explained the many protein Balance bars and Snickers bulging from his pockets.
We were as prepared as possible for a smooth shoot without incident or delay. In our arsenal, to ensure all went well, we had: an envelope of money for baksheesh, passports, visas, and our carnet for the camera gear. We had just one day to shoot the segment in Jordan and fortunately, Bethany Beyond the Jordan was about five to ten minutes from the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge. The border didn’t open until 8 a.m. for crossing and, as it is strongly suggested you arrive early, time was of the essence.
Once we crossed into Jordan, a Jordanian government official, two security men, a production assistant, a tourist bus and a driver were due to meet us. As we approached the border, the suburban suddenly filled with a very sweet fragrance; as we queued, several large trucks bearing mountains of oranges lined up beside us on their way to market in Amman. Waiting for the Israeli army to inspect each truck took hours and we could see our Jordanian officials waiting by a small bus, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. We could do nothing but wait. We opened the back of the suburban and made coffee on a small stove, stealing oranges from the last truck for breakfast.
After two and a half hours we showed our visas and lugged cases of our gear for inspection. Finally, we crossed into Jordan and met our officials, handing over a little baksheesh. We continued to the archaeological site where we met Muhammad Waheeb. Muhammad was the lead archaeologist at all excavations carried out at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which began in 1996. Jordan was attempting to follow Israel’s success in biblical archeology which became a major factor in their increased tourism. It’s believed that Jesus’ baptism took place on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, at Wadi Al-Kharrar. This location was therefore touted to evangelical Christians looking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Already three hours behind, we shot a seated interview with Mr. Waheeb then B-roll of the dig site: the Jordanian workmen, close-ups of their hands and shovels, the terrain, and a walkabout with Mr. Waheeb as he surveyed the excavation. We rushed to capture as much footage as we could before we left for the border which closed at midnight. And we needed to be there at least three hours before this, to unload all the gear for inspection and show our visas to the Palestinian Authority.
Despite getting some great footage, we felt that we were missing a key shot, that of Bethany by the Jordan and the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed. Mark, Jim and I went on the hunt, wandering down a makeshift path lined with an old wooden fence. We’d just passed some Jordanian workmen who were extending the dirt path through a dense thicket of bushes and shrubs when we stopped at what appeared to be a promising location. Beyond the fence, facing west into Israel, was an open field. Within this was a mound of earth that offered enough elevation to clearly see the east bank of the river.
‘Jim, you take the tripod. Mark, give me an extra camera battery and tape,’ I said.
I handed the camera to Mark as I hopped over the fence, Jim following me with the tripod. As we had little time left I forged ahead in a quick march, across the barren patch of earth. Mark stayed behind and sauntered back to the Jordanian workmen we’d passed to shoot more B-roll with his mini DV camera. Jim and I were near the mound when our attention was caught by the workmen. ‘Hey! Mr! Broom, Broom! Mr….Room!
‘Dave, what are they shouting about?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I said, confused. ‘Something about a broom.’
‘Why would we need brooms?’ Jim murmured.
Standing next to the shouting workmen Mark looked bewildered. He threw his arms up in an ‘I don’t know’ gesture.
‘Hey, Mark, what’s all the hoopla? What’s going on?’ I shouted.
‘I don’t know what they’re saying, guys. Something about a broom. Or a room…there’s a lot of commotion,’ Mark shouted back.
The workmen rushed to the fence, shouting, with Mark in tow. At that moment, storming down from the top of the trailhead, our short, squatty Jordanian escort – we called him Mr. Security – was running towards us, arms flailing and leaving a wake of dust.
‘Nooooooo!’ he yelled.
As Mr. Security got closer to Mark and the workmen I could see his round face was sweating profusely. There was a big, wet spot on the front of his shirt underneath his suit jacket.
Jim shouted, ‘Hey, guys, what’s going on?’
Mr. Security stepped up to the fence. Leaning as far forward as he could without losing his balance, he cupped his hands. In broken English, he yelled, ‘No, no! Stand still! That area has not yet been cleared of landmines.’
‘Oh, great!’ Mark shouted. ‘That’s just great! Jesussss!’
‘Dave, what did he say?’ Jim asked.
‘I think he said we’re in a landmine field that’s not been cleared. The Jordanian guys were saying ‘Boom, Boom’, not ‘Broom, Room’.’
‘Oh. Well, uh, what do you think?’
‘I think I would rather be at IHOP having pancakes,’ I sighed.
‘You know, I think that’s a good way to look at things. Let’s just relax and breathe in. Breathe out. Calm, calm, calm,’ suggested Jim, letting out a nervous chuckle.
He was about two meters behind me, with the tripod over his shoulder and Snickers bars in his pants. We both stood perfectly still, squarely balanced on both feet that were planted into the earth. The sun seemed suddenly hotter than it had been only moments ago and my grip on the camera had become more difficult as sweat ran down my arm. For a split second, I swore I could hear the ocean. Perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, in an attempt to take me away from reality. How we’d managed to get into such a scrape, I didn’t know; there’d been no signs and nothing had been mentioned about landmines.
‘Jim, I think I just threw up in my mouth.’
‘That’s got to be unpleasant. Do you have any gum?’
‘Yeah, somewhere.’ I paused a little before searching about my body.
After intensely focusing on the ground around us, I looked up at Jim. I could see he was also processing our situation.
‘Dave, did they say it hadn’t been cleared of landmines? Let’s think about it. They said ‘cleared of landmines’. Being this close to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Elijah’s Hill and other archeological sites – not to mention this big push to bring in tourism – they may not know if landmines have recently been cleared. Just beyond that hill I can see the tops of willow trees, which means we’re very close to the Jordan river….’
‘I found the gum!’
‘What?’ Jim asked.
‘I found the gum.’
‘Oh, great, Dave. Can we just focus on this, please? I think, if we really focus on the ground, we should go for it.’
My ears suddenly snapped into action. ‘Elijah’s Hill? Isn’t that where Elijah’s ascension into heaven was in a whirlwind of dust, at the appearance of a chariot of fire?’
‘I’m not sure. But it sounds biblical. I’m trying to recall any movie I’ve seen where the characters are in a landmine field, and how they might have got out of it.’ Jim paused. ‘Hey! Do you remember the movie ‘Lethal Weapon 2’? Where Danny Glover is on a landmine? No, no, that’s not right….it was a toilet mine,’ he muttered.
‘Jesus, get real,’ I said. ‘It’s a ‘what would MacGyver do?’ issue. You know, I worked with Richard Dean Anderson on General Hospital back in the day, before he was MacGyver.’
‘Really? You never told me that,’ said Jim.
‘Yeah. We’d race wheelchairs across the studio between taping scenes, then sneak behind other actors and hang clothespins on the back of their clothes. We even pinned the executive producer, Gloria Monty.’
‘Dave, Dave…you’re rambling. I think I have cramp in my legs.’
‘Hey, Jim! How about we scoop up pebbles and toss them in-front of us?’
‘That’s a great idea. I wonder if that was ever used in a movie?’
With my feet firm, I bent down and gently scooped a pile of small stones and earth. ‘I’ll go first,’ I told Jim. Holding the camera in my right hand, I closed my eyes and threw the handful as hard as I could. There was no explosion.
Jim laughed. ‘You throw like a girl. Well, we’re almost at the bank of the Jordan. It’d make a great establishing shot.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I said.
Despite the weight of the Betacam and the daypack full of batteries and tapes, balance became paramount. I leaned forward, ready to take a step. With each footstep the crunch of dry earth, dead roots and unusual lumps in the earth became potentially volatile underneath my boots. I stopped and turned to Jim. ‘Well? Should we keep going?’
‘Let’s go for it, Dave. Who knows, maybe the History Channel will do one of those screen credits: In memory of Dave Banks and Jim Glover, who made this program possible.’
‘I doubt they would. The History Channel’s like most networks – drowning in corporate culture and more interested in making money by selling commercial airtime than giving credit to anonymous producers like us on the front lines.’
Frenetically chewing my gum, I took another step, feeling every little step in the dry soil. Another step…nothing. Another step forward…nothing. Jim followed, placing his boots in my footprints. We reached the top of the mound.
‘Wow! We made it,’ said Jim.
‘Yeah, well, it’s not the best establishing shot, but it’ll do.’ I glanced back at the fence, where the workmen were squatting on the dirt path with their hands covering their ears, as was Mark and Mr. Security.
Really? You guys can’t have a little more faith that we’re going to get out of this?
Jim and I set up the tripod and shot the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed, zooming in and out of the Bethany Beyond the Jordan excavation and panning the horizon. ‘I think we’ve as much B-roll as we can get. You ready to head back?’ I said.
‘Before we do, let’s raise a toast with a Snickers bar,’ Jim said.
We raised our Snickers to Mark and Mr. Security who had dropped their hands from their ears. The workmen had now turned their back to us, still with their fingers in their ears. Mark gave us two thumbs up and a smile. Jim and I were in no rush to dance our way back to the path. We slowly munched our creamy, nutty chocolate, stalling for time.
‘Have you ever eaten a frozen Snickers, Jim?’
‘Oh yeah. I love one on a hot day, especially after a run.’
‘You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in a landmine field,’ I said. ‘I had a shoot in Israel a couple of years back. I was shooting around Galilee in a field when the IDF drove up and told us, ‘Guys, this area hasn’t been cleared’. It appears that someone had actually taken down the warning signs. There was noindication of danger.’
‘Wow,’ said Jim.
‘I think we should walk backwards, placing our feet in the footprints we’ve already left. What do you think?’
‘Good idea. Let’s just take our time.’
‘Are you going to be able to keep your balance with the tripod on your shoulder?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, no problem,’ said Jim.
We had a plan but with much apprehension: moon-walking across a sterile field of earth that held Crackerjack-style surprises underneath. I turned my head, owl-like, and took my first steps, carefully placing my boots in the shallow imprints I’d left earlier that afternoon. Holding the camera in one hand and covering my crotch with the other, I continued backwards. Turning his head from side to side and keeping perfect balance with the tripod on his shoulder, Jim gingerly began his return to the fence.
Mark called out, ‘Just take your time. Don’t rush…you’re doing great, guys!’
Reaching the fence, we both gave a huge sigh of relief. It was obvious Mr. Security was very upset with us, he didn’t speak to Jim or me for the rest of the shoot. Mark slapped us on the back, pleased that body bags had not been necessary.
We loaded up the gear and traveled back to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge, where Shmuel was waiting to take us back to the King David Hotel. Our Jordanian hosts were given a bonus in cash, as expected. We had nearly a week of shooting left in Israel – hopefully, without any further mishaps. Shmuel turned the radio off and the three of us, Mark, Jim and I, fell asleep.
I didn’t have a restful sleep that night with Bethany replaying in my dreams over and over again. I woke and remained tired, despite the many shots of espresso I’d downed. I moved more slowly and wasn’t as clear headed as usual. Hopefully, I’d tap into my enthusiasm at the Garden Tomb. It was an easy day of ‘talking head’ pieces. Stood in the hotel lobby, waiting to leave, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. It was then that I recognized a team of American Secret Service agents. They were trying to be inconspicuous in their dark suits, Secret Service lapel pins and sunglasses, doing reconnaissance.
I recalled that, before we’d departed for Israel, the shoot had nearly been cancelled by MPH Entertainment due to events of terrorism: suicide bombers, snipers and random shootings had killed 69 and left 292 civilians and IDF soldiers injured. MPH had had doubts about our safety but they were under a deadline with the History Channel. Time and money were at stake; regardless of safety, we had to feed the monster. At the last minute, Mark, Jim and I persuaded MPH to move forward with the production of ‘In the Footsteps of Jesus’.
On the drive to the Garden Tomb, the IDF and the Jerusalem police were out in force at every intersection of the city. Shmuel told us that Vice President Dick Cheney and General Anthony Zinni were both in Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Only the day before, a suicide bomber had detonated his bomb on a bus, killing 21 civilians, just minutes after we’d passed through the French Hill neighborhood, northeast of the city. No wonder security was at a heightened level with Cheney – whom we referred to as Darth Vader – and Zinni in town. In the Garden Tomb, across the Damascus Gate, we were ready to shoot interviews against a beautiful backdrop of cultivated English garden, with stone paths, flowers and towering pines. It was a peaceful atmosphere unlike the world outside the walls. The Garden Tomb was a favorite spot for Christian prayer and meditation, and a great location to conduct interviews with little external noise. Between interviews with Peter Wells, General Secretary of the Garden Tomb, and archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson, we shot B-roll of the skull-like feature on the adjacent hillside, which many Christians believe to be Golgotha, as described in the Bible. The Garden Tomb also showcased an ancient rock-cut tomb that had side by side chambers which most evangelical Christians believed was where Jesus was laid to rest before transcending to heaven. After the previous day’s experience, Jim and I felt we had a right to indulge ourselves: we took it in turns to lie on the stone benches to be ‘resurrected’.
It was late afternoon when we finished the last interview. We gathered up our gear and packed it away. It was our last day of shooting in Jerusalem. The next day would see us check out of the King David Hotel and travel to the northern shore of the Galilee.
We rushed to get back to review tapes, clean the gear, charge batteries, pack our clothes, have a sit-down dinner and maybe, just maybe, get at least six hours’ sleep. The gods, however, were not with us. There was congestion throughout Jerusalem with the universal middle finger salute given out like candy. Honking horns, shouts and security checks hailed us at every intersection leading back to the hotel. With traffic queues stretching before us we snacked on Balance bars, Three Musketeers’ chocolate bars, and Jelly Bellys – all of which only raised our impulsiveness, bravado and reckless behavior. We were only a few blocks away from the hotel and someone had to pee – I won’t mention any names. We started shouting from the back seat, daring Shmuel to hop lanes. There was no oncoming traffic.
‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go for it!’ we chanted. ‘Go, go, go, go!’
Shmuel looked into the rear-view mirror and gave us a ‘Clint Eastwood’ smirk. He glanced quickly in both directions then pulled the suburban into the opposite lane, making his way to the entrance of the King David Hotel. Driving up to the car port, we jumped out and started unloading our gear. We were met by a tall, red-headed Secret Service agent wearing Wayfarer sunglasses. He spoke into his sleeve. ‘Yeah, I got it.’ He then turned to us. ‘Hey! You guys can’t stop here. You have to move along.’
‘What? We have reservations here,’ Jim said.
‘Sorry, but you have to move, now! We’ve VIPs arriving in a minute and we need this area cleared of all traffic.’
Reloading the gear, we jumped back into the suburban. Shmuel told us that the hotel had a rich tradition of hosting royalty, celebrities and other international dignitaries on their visits to Jerusalem. We drove across the street to the most elegant YMCA I’d ever seen: it combined art deco, Byzantine and Islamic decorative styles, and it was surrounded by gardens – the Village People would have been proud. We sat in the parking lot, waiting for Cheney’s convoy to arrive while trying to remember the lyrics and gestures of ‘YMCA’.
Our attention was turned when a stream of black suburbans with flashing red lights came from our right. They made their way down David HaMelech Street, past Gozlan Garden. There were few privately owned suburbans in Israel, most were official Embassy vehicles; in particular, those of the US Embassy. Shmuel and his suburban were often mistaken as being part of the embassy which worked to his advantage sometimes. The motorcade passed by and, still on a sugar high, we started shouting at Shmuel. ‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go! Go, baby, go! Shmuel accelerated, making a small screeching sound in the parking lot, driving to the tail end of the convoy. We waited in line as dignitaries and security teams unloaded at the front entrance of the King David. More Israeli police came up behind us but we acted like any other official and took our turn to pull into the hotel carport. The red-headed agent we’d met earlier was not in sight so we quickly jumped out and pulled all our gear from the vehicle. Mark proceeded through the revolving glass door in a cadence of authority. Mark has that East Coast air about him and he dresses very similarly to a deputy director of the FBI. No one stopped him as he disappeared into the lobby.
As the rest of us unloaded a couple of agents surrounded our vehicle – not questioning us but looking out to the street for any unusual activity, in protection. I could only assume that they thought we were part of the envoy. We continued, unchallenged, into the hotel.
The lobby was decorated sumptuously and furnished with velvet couches, gold drapery and marble-topped tables, with a spectacular view of the Old City and Mount Zion. The Secret Service agents were sitting in over-stuffed chairs, their feet up on the coffee tables as they smoked cigars. They talked loudly, their bursts of laughter echoing off the marble floors and traveling down the halls. The staff of the King David tried to ignore the vocal Americans but you could read their thoughts when they glanced up, disdain on their faces for their ugly American guests. An agent near the elevators stopped me. ‘Hey, where’s your service pin? You know we’re on lock down.’ He was referring to the Secret Service lapel pin that gave them full access to roam about the hotel. ‘It’s, erm, in my bag upstairs,’ I said, showing him my room key.
‘You’d better wear it,’ he warned.
In our hotel rooms, Mark and Jim reviewed the footage while I cleaned our gear, packed, and charged the batteries. We ordered room service and discussed our itinerary for the following day’s trip to Galilee, hitting the sack around 3 a.m.
Vice President Dick Cheney was grinding his teeth, his head cocked to one side, as if to take aim at his plate of cantaloupe and assorted breakfast goodies. He bore an irritating smirk of satisfaction as he chomped down on the ripe pink flesh, all the while scanning the hotel’s elegant breakfast room. The room was incredibly quiet with just the occasional sound of silver spoons stirring within porcelain cups. At the entrance of the breakfast room, and at each exit, were dozens of dark-suited agents, their die-cast pins sat proudly on their lapels. Each agent had an earpiece with a clear acoustic tube that dropped down underneath their jacket collar.
Our table was directly adjacent to Cheney’s and, on occasion, we caught part of the staff briefing. Dick Cheney was smaller in person than his ominous persona on television, yet his 5 foot 8 frame seemed to tower over the table and his staff. There was a perpetual smugness on his upper lip that pulled to the left side of his round, meaty face. It must have been a bad day for the VP, his trademark scowl was present as he listened to the day’s agenda. We tried not to make eye contact with the agents or Darth Cheney, concentrating solely on eating our breakfasts. Eventually, we caught each other’s eyes and snickered, very much amused that however tight Cheney thought his convoy was, we’d breached it. We checked out of the King David without any problems, under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service. With Jerusalem behind us, we took our time, stopping along the way to shoot B-roll. We booked into a kibbutz at the end of the day and turned in early, eager to rise in time to shoot the sun rising over the Golan Height and Galilee. Nothing will ever top the filming of that beautiful morning at the shore of Galilee on what was our last day. With the camera on a tripod and locked off, I filmed the sunrise as it peeked over the Golan Heights. Gleaming, warm, amber rays reflected off the lapping waters of the Galilee and a new day was born. It was serene, and the closest thing to a spiritual moment that I’ve ever had in Israel.
The waterfowl resting on the gentle surface suddenly screeched off into the distance and tranquility disappeared. Two drunken Russians floated down the shoreline in large, black inner tubes, holding bottles of vodka and singing. It was 5:39 a.m. The moment could still have been salvaged if only the Russians had continued their journey out of frame. But it was not to be, the current halted their progress in the middle of my shot. I waited for half an hour as they smoked cigarettes, laughing loudly. Perhaps God was letting me know that He had a sense of humor? Or perhaps my spiritual moments are just different to those of other people….