The Strange and Dangerous Journey to 'Finding Noah' Documentary

The film is headed for 640 screens next month, and was made under extraordinary circumstances that included dealings with a Middle Eastern terrorist group.

Thanks to terror group ISIS, a documentary narrated by Gary Sinise about a group’s search for Noah’s Ark won’t include some of the most harrowing moments of the expedition, a story that includes Kurdish militants, bribery, intrigue and lots of machine guns pointed at filmmakers.

The $3 million movie, Finding Noah, is headed for 640 screens on Oct. 8 for one night only through an arrangement with Fathom Events. It includes a panel discussion with the filmmakers simulcast at theaters nationwide.

The genesis of the film was two years ago when producer Brent Baum decided to embed a crew of filmmakers, including himself, with an expedition of about a dozen archeologists, scientists, historians and theologians who were set to explore Mount Ararat where, according to the book of Genesis, the Ark came to rest. Then, the project was kicked into high gear with the hype surrounding Paramount’s Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s controversial telling of the biblical story. “It brought it to the forefront of social discussion,” says Baum.

Mount Ararat, on the border of Turkey and Iran, is an ice-capped dormant volcano that can be as dangerous politically as it is environmentally, hence the filmmakers were forced into dealings with Kurdish militants who initially demanded a $600,000 bribe for the privilege of being left to pursue their quest.

“They called it a ‘tax’ and we had to negotiate our way out of it,” recalls Baum.

Baum spent three months filming in Turkey, Armenia and Israel, including 30 days on Mount Ararat, setting up camps at 3,200 and 4,200 meters, before eventually climbing 17,000 feet to the top, though harsh conditions had two of the dozen members of the film crew choosing not to go the distance.

No one, though, climbs Mount Ararat without permission from the Kurds, a minority Middle-Eastern group of about 32 million people who are often at odds politically and religiously with the majorities in Turkey and Iran. Baum’s guides obtained the necessary permits, but Kurdish militants needed to meet him and his crew, and that's when things got truly intense.

“We heard a whistle, a man approached and we were told to leave our cameras behind. We hiked around an abandoned village over a hill. There was another whistle up ahead and we hiked over that hill, and so on, for an hour,” recalls Baum.

“We breached a subsequent hill and were greeted by four men with machine guns. Glancing around the rocks and hills surrounding us, I noticed a sizable force of about 40 men. Before anybody spoke, we were asked to give up our phones.”

The dozens of phones (Baum alone carried three) were tossed into a sack and a young Kurd disappeared with them. Then Baum was introduced to the leader, a man called Gen. Z.

“His first question to me was, ‘Are you scared?’ I looked at my side where casually sat a man with a machine gun and said, ‘Yes.’ His response to me was: ‘Thank you for being honest.’”

The U.S. government has designated the group that Gen. Z fights for as a terrorist organization, but he nevertheless expressed solidarity with Americans, and 45 minutes into their discussion, Baum and company were granted permission to search for the ark, the wooden ship that the Bible says God instructed Noah to build so he and his cargo of wildlife would survive a devastating flood.

Gen. Z relented on his request for $600,000 (mostly because Baum convinced him that he did not have that kind of cash on hand), but there was only one way Baum would be able to film the militants or include them in any fashion in his movie, and that was with an OK from Kurdish leadership in Iraq. Gen. Z even provided a photo of himself as a boy that Baum could use when meeting Kurdish leadership in the war-torn country. It was to be used as proof, he said, that he and his soldiers were willing to be filmed over the course of several weeks for inclusion in the movie.

“While waiting for audience to make our request, the Kurdish troops we had been negotiating with were called off to defend the Kurdish villages in Syria, and subsequently those in Iraq in the battle against ISIS,” Baum recalls.

Baum failed in his mission to include the dramatic encounter with the militants in his film, and the group didn’t find the elusive ark, but he learned much from the experience and hopes the audience will as well.

“The expedition scientifically ruled out certain areas of the eastern plateau on the summit as a possible place for the ark. The film proves that man has an inherent need to explore and that sometimes in that exploration he finds things more meaningful than the object he was seeking,” he says.

“My perspective was forever changed on Mount Ararat. When you are tethered to another man climbing one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, it is easy to overlook differences,” says Baum. “It no longer mattered that this man was of another faith or skin color, he was my friend, my partner and the only thing standing between death and me.”

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com

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