Films on Saudia Arabia and Tahiti at the Museum of Science and N.E. Aquarium educate and inspire audiences.
To armchair and experienced travelers alike, Saudi Arabia and Tahiti seem to have absolutely nothing in common.
Hidden behind a veil of religion and Middle Eastern politics, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia conjures images of vast deserts, oil wells spewing petrodollars and Muslims making their pilgrimages to Mecca.
Tahiti, the largest island of French Polynesia, seems to exist as a fantasy getaway in a tourist brochure that promises sandy beaches and black-haired beauties, the turquoise waters of the Pacific and sunny days without end.
However stereotyped in popular myth, surprising new sides of Saudi Arabia and Tahiti emerge in two contrasting movies that recently opened at the Museum of Science and New England Aquarium.
Taking very different routes, "Arabia," a giant screen documentary in the MOS's Mugar Omni Theatre, and "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D" at NEA's Simon's IMAX Theatre introduce viewers to people, places and activities generally unavailable to most tourists.
Like the most serendipitous journeys, both films provide unexpected rewards that make them well worth seeing.
Viewers of both films will see the harsh desert landscapes and the psychedelic wonder of coral reefs that reveal distinctive kinds of beauty.
While "Arabia" provides a more complex awareness of Saudi Arabian culture, "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti" supplies the three-dimensional visceral thrills of surfing in a picturesque Pacific paradise.
Yet this film about nine-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater also educates viewers about how volcanic eruptions eons ago created the archipelago, how celestial forces affect waves and how humans are degrading its coral reefs.
For many who've never visited, Saudi Arabia and Tahiti are prime examples of exotic lands in the popular sense of "strikingly exciting" or "mysteriously different."
After watching both films, viewers might still consider them exotic, yet in more profound ways.
Directed by Greg MacGillivray, "Arabia" puts a human face on gender relations and religion in an Islamic country that's suffered for decades from prejudicial stereotypes.
At a time popular media often portray Saudis as oil sheiks, abused women or religious zealots, three narrators -- a hip film student, a woman poet and the kingdom's leading archaeologist -- guide viewers through a dramatically changing society populated by recognizable people. At the Mugar Omni Theatre, viewers will share the hospitality of the legendary Bedouin who still roam the vast Empty Quarter. They'll visit lost cities from a distant Golden Age and enter Mecca, the religious center of Islam that's closed to non-Muslims.
Perhaps most revealing, 25-year-old narrator Hamzah Jamjoom brings strangers into his father's house in Jeddah where they meet his family just like ordinary folks.
"I definitely think this movie clears up misperceptions about Arabic culture. For centuries Arabs have been portrayed as villains," said Jamjoon, who's earning a masters degree in film at DePaul University in Chicago. "Because Arabic culture is very private, Westerners always considered it exotic and very strange. I'm happy I learned new things about my own country by appearing in this film."
Honestly, how would you imagine Saudi Arabia: men in white thobes (robes), women in black abayas (cloaks) and camels plodding over sand dunes?
"Arabia" will expand your view of the Middle East's largest nation and its 28 million citizens.
With Jamjoon, poet Nimah Nawwab and archaeologist Dr. Daifallah Al-Talhi as tour guides, viewers will explore 2,000 years of Arabian history from the ancient Nabataeans who built oasis settlements across northern Arabia before the birth of Christ through two Islamic Golden Ages, all the way to a booming 21st century nation that's home to vast petroleum resources and several of Islam's holiest mosques.
Most surprisingly, the narrators guide viewers through a country of often stunning natural diversity from the coral reefs of the Red Sea to encounters with baboons that live in the desert, from Bedouin tents to booming international cities of towering skyscrapers.
Before the film's premiere, Jamjoon spoke of the delicate balance the Kingdom must strike between traditions that define Saudi identity and the demands of progress.
"All (Saudis) are aware of our glorious past and want progress. But there's a gap between new and old," he said. "Some people think we're changing too fast. Others think it's too slow. Hopefully we'll preserve the good old values and still make progress."
At the film's close, Jamjoon quoted the Quran for guidance about reconciling the contrary demands of faith and modernity: "Whoever goes out in search of knowledge is on the path of God."
In "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti," Slater and his fellow surfers seem to be taking a simpler, more sensual journey.
Directed by Stephen Low, this 45-minute film contains dazzling scenes of Slater and friends riding enormous waves, gliding beneath cavernous curls and performing stunts of acrobatic grace.
Throughout the film, audience members audibly reacted to glorious Pacific panoramas, underwater footage of shipwrecks and manta rays, sea turtles and huge schools of needlefish gliding through luminescent coral. Filmed with 140-pound cameras, the movie recreates a gorgeous three-dimensional world on a screen big enough to accommodate three adult whales.
While viewers of "Arabia" often caught their breath at the vast desert vistas; this audience frequently reached out to touch crashing surfboards, prowling sharks and beauties in bikinis dancing on the beach.
A nine-time world surfing champ, Slater emerges as something of an enigma. Born in 1972 in Cocoa Beach, Fla., he was both the youngest, at 20, and the oldest, at 36, to win world titles. A lithe and sinewy man, Slater rides ferocious waves with samurai intensity and a Zen-like aplomb that's attributed to a "love of surfing" that's never really explained.
Ashore with his longtime surf buddy Tahitian Raimana Van Bastolaer, Slater offers an unflappable presence. But he remains as mysterious as the seaborne spirits said to have settled Tahiti more than 1,000 years ago.
And curiously, Slater and his surf buddies are as nomadic as the Bedouin of old Arabia, moving from island to island chasing perfect waves rather than the rains.
Just perhaps, Slater finds in the perfection of his natural art the ineffable serenity that Islam -- which means "submission to God's will" -- promises to the faithful.
To its considerable credit, "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti" employs its 3-D technology and devotes at least half its running time to illustrating the geological and planetary forces that formed the Pacific islands and drive the ocean currents. And, with scientific clarity, it warns how humans endanger the reefs which protect Tahiti's pristine beaches.
Rather than the sedentary pleasures of a cruise ship, these very different films will transport adventurous travelers to fascinating destinations on opposite sides of the globe that just might shake up how they see the world.
At the Museum of Science
1 Science Park, Boston
"The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D"
At the New England Aquarium
1 Central Wharf, Boston