The Marrakesh International Film Festival, in conjunction with the Moroccan National Tourism Bureau, treated 60 journalists and film industry professionals to a day trip to the celebrated film studios of Ouarzazate, where Scorsese filmed Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, and where, more recently, Game of Thrones, seasons l and 3, were shot.
But first we stopped by the 11th century town of La Casbah d'Ait Ben Haddou, a Unesco World Heritage site, which has served as the locale for so many films, from Indiana Jones to Babel, that half the population (3000) of the adjoining area are extras, ready to don any period piece costume, from that of a royal Nubian (Jewel of the Nile) to that a Bedouin in the desert (Lawrence of Arabia). The air was fresh and cool in the bright midday sun, the desert stretching out beyond us, as we approached the ancient clay buildings built into a hill.
Italian film director Andrea Pallaoro, here at the festival with his first film Medeas, enthused about the beauty of the village as we traipsed up the narrow winding streets. "I hope we reach the top!" he said, with a hopeful gaity that the alienated characters in his own film would be so lucky to have.
We didn't reach the top. Instead I saw a little boy kicking a donkey. "He's my friend," the boy explained.
Back in the bus, we headed for the famed Atlas Studios (founded in 1983), which included every element of the Middle East known to film sets, from sphinxes to clay courtyards, which the director of the studio explained to me could represent pretty much any ancient town, from Jerusalem to Damascus. "Or anything biblical."
"We just paint the door," he said--pointing to an opening in a hovel.
On site was a fake car made of plaster, handy for car crash explosions.
"But it looks so fake!" I said.
"We film the explosion at a distance," the director said.
We gathered inside a fake Hindu temple where Scorsese filmed scenes for Kundun. Several journalists enjoyed sitting on the dolly and swinging by the shrine.
Then off we went to a nearby studio, where Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven was filmed--and several episodes of Game of Thrones. Here a spectacular group of stunt men awaited us to simulate soldiers on horseback fighting each other with swords, to save a princess.
En route, we passed by a fake hinged counterweight catapult, invented for warfare by Saladin in the 12th century.
A highlight of the trip: a chance conversation with a Moroccan unit producer at lunch in the Berber Hotel of Ouarzazate. The former unit producer for the film Of Gods and Men, he was currently living in this hotel for a few months, to make a film (The White Knights)about the French couple who created a fake NGO (Arche de Zoé) for supposed Darfur orphans so as to sell these children to French families. Joining us at the table was an excited film producer, en route to Dubai to get financing for a television series featuring the life of the prophet Mohammed.
"Why are so many films shot in Morocco?" I asked the unit producer.
"First, the light---we have exquisite light. And the scenery, the desert."
"But what about other Arab countries?"
"Insurance is too high. Who wants to insure a film in Egypt or Tunisia, where the tension is high, where there is a possibility of a riot? And we have another advantage in Morrocco. No censureship. In Dubai, they couldn't film Sex in the City without taking out the word 'Sex'." Here in Morocco there is no censorship."
How was the film industry in Morocco?
"Thriving," the calm man, also a black belt in the martial arts, told me as he carved his fish. "But the problem is movie theaters. Movie theaters are closing in Morocco. Even here in Ouarzazate, the town of cinema, the only cinema has closed down. People prefer to watch films in their homes, on television, or get them pirated. It is dangerous for the film industry, this pirating, as we can't make our money back."
"But you love your job?"
"Oh yes, I love this business," the unit producer smiled as he stood up from the table to go back to work.
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