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Ouarzazate, Morocco's cinema city, by Tristan Rutherford

AramcoWorld Magazine, December 2017


“Walk past Ancient Egypt then turn left at Tibet,” says Amine Tazi, General Manager of Africa’s largest film studios. “That’s where we filmed the Saudi TV series Omar,” a recent biopic of Omar ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam. The 31-episode series proved good business for Tazi’s neighboring Atlas Studios and CLA Studios. The show’s Syrian director Hatem Ali filmed for six months around Ouarzazate, Morocco’s movie capital, midway between the Sahara desert and Marrakech.


“Omar reused an existing film set to look like Damascus,” recalls Tazi. “Then we created the holy kaaba in the desert next door.” The studio boss also has license to draft in the Moroccan army for assistance. For Kingdom of Heaven, Tazi equipped 3,000 soldiers with spears and sandals then fought a running battle across an imaginary Palestine. “Our studios are known as Ouallywood. Hollywood, Bollywood, they all come to us to film.”  


It’s testament to a unique topography that Ouarzazate’s cinema industry pre-dates Tazi’s world-beating studios. Clear mountain air funnels down from the High Atlas. It rarely clouds over, let alone rains. In 1962, British director David Lean shot shimming desert scenes for Lawrence of Arabia against a backdrop of dunes, kasbahs and mountain lakes – filming locations that now double for Saudi Arabia’s empty quarter, rural Afghanistan or the Russian steppe.


Morocco’s diverse ethnicity renders the country a casting director’s go-to. If a movie needs African actors, calls are made to towns like Erfoud near the Algerian border. For Mediterranean types, they telephone Tangier. American director Martin Scorsese planned to fly 400 Tibetans to Ouarzazate for his Dalai Lama epic Kundun. Instead local fixers visited a Berber tribe whose ancestors fought for France in Vietnam, bringing home dozens of Indochinese wives. Their Asian-looking offspring were placed to the rear of Scorsese’s set pieces, with a mere 60 bona fide Tibetans in front of shot.


It’s clear that both region and movie industry are locked in a symbiotic relationship. Each must help the other overcome security issues and competition from Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan. Not to mention the demands of moviemakers from East and West. Win, and the town will maintain the Hollywood windfall that is financing a new breed of Moroccan and Arabian actors and directors. Fail, and Ouarzazate will return to its status as a dusty crossroads between the Atlantic and Timbuktu.


“Fortunately the wealth our blockbusters bring is transferable to the town,” says Tazi. When NBC’s Biblical marathon A.D. checked into Ouarzazate in 2014, 600 local artisans were employed for half a year. Big numbers in a city of 50,000. Outside Tazi’s studio walls, ironworkers beat out swords and shields. Street seamstresses sew tunics and togas in the warm Saharan air. “The relationship is so strong that when we book a movie about Afghan freedom fighters, half the town will start growing a long beard.” Indeed, my driver regularly doubles as an extra for $25 per day, plus lunch. My barber moonlights as a hair and make-up man, a profession in the $50 per day category. This gargantuan semi-desert has no mineral resources like oil or gas. “Just excellent natural and human resources,” concludes Tazi.


As the movie industry matures, so more Moroccans can take over senior roles. When Atlas Studios were constructed in 1984 to accommodate the Michael Douglas adventure Jewel of the Nile, 20th Century Fox flew out the camera crew, assistants, grips, animal handlers, and even caterers. Now the town pre-empts production needs by teaching film shooting and technician courses at the École du Cinéma de Ouarzazate, and production and scriptwriting techniques at its Faculté Polydisciplinaire. The town has reached the stage where all a foreign movie needs is to fly in a director or producer, and a bag of cash. About 80% of movie staff are now fully trained Moroccans.


These figures are confirmed by Mohamed el Hajaoui, a dashing actor who also leads tours around Atlas and sister studio CLA. Our stroll is spellbinding. The studios encompass an entire planet built using the three P’s: plaster, plastic and polystyrene. With a few deft moves the carpentry squad can transform the Luxor set into Constantinople, Jerusalem, Mecca, or Persepolis.


It’s here that young Moroccan assistant directors like Mehdi Elkhaoudy learned their trade shooting scenes on Prison Break, which turned a primary school into a temporary Yemeni jail, and recent Ben Kingsley series Tutankhamun, in which el Hajaoui had a small role. The actor demonstrates the film set’s capability by picking up a giant foam ‘rock’ from a medieval catapult and throwing it against a plywood citadel ‘wall’. 


We walk on to where scenes were shot from Gladiator, another Hollywood epic attracted by Ouarzazate’s ethereal light. It’s one of four that veteran British director Ridley Scott opted to shoot here. “During filming we also locked up Russell Crowe in the Musée de Cinema in the town center”, adds el Hajaoui. We soon meet other Arabian and European movie tourists who are sauntering the sights and sets in the hope of emulating their cinematic heroes. While Atlas isn’t Universal Studios – and locally produced movies haven’t created a Lord of the Rings effect, as seen in New Zealand – rising tourism receipts can only be a good thing.


One worry of el Hajaoui, a graduate of the local film school, is the increasing use of cinematic CGI. These special effects threaten to muscle in on Atlas’s bit-part acting trade, which the town depends on. On the flipside, the post-production suites at CLA studios next door should provide more high-tech work for local Moroccan staff.


Areas that are working overtime are both studios’ props departments. Upcoming films include an Indian historical epic, so staff are polishing out Saracen swords, Phrygian standards and Roman shields that can be reused on set. Gathering dust in the voluminous storeroom are rows of aged abacuses, leather bags of money, bowls and scrolls. The nearby costume department is dyeing garments for an American boy-meets-Arabian girl desert love drama that’s about to commence filming. Another handwritten sign points out: “Peshmergas, hommes”.


Braying horses lead us to the animal training center. A full time team of seventeen care for camels and donkeys, items essential for any Biblical or Quranic epic. Horse trainer Brahim Rahou leads us to his most famous charge, an albino stallion named Spirit. “This horse carried Khaleesi (the Game of Thrones character Daenerys Targaryen),” Rahou explains. “Well my friend was Khaleesi’s personal soldier,” trumps el Hajaoui. Did both men find her attractive? “Yes.”


Each year Ouarzazate attracts around ten foreign feature movies and ten Moroccan productions, plus 100 or so TV episodes. Nationally produced films like Les Indigenes, a drama about Magreb soldiers who fought for France in World War II, attract a third of Moroccan cinema visits, and make up five of the top ten biggest grossing films most years. What the likes of actor el Hajaoui and animal trainer Rahou require is this sustained throughput of hits. Only then can the city continue to maintain the skills needed to provide a film industry for all.

It’s fortunate that the job of attracting foreign movies to this desert crossroads has fallen to Abderrazzak Zitouny. The whirlwind director of the Ouarzazate Film Commission has pulled in million-dollar productions by force of personality alone. “German director Werner Herzog came to our Ouarzazate stand at the Los Angeles Film Festival”, remembers Zitouny, a piratical Moroccan ringer for Johnny Depp. “Of course, I used to be an actor so I sold our region’s beauty like I was selling a dream.” Herzog was so impressed that he asked Zitouny if he could utilize his drama skills in a forthcoming shoot. “I said ‘of course Werner, but only if you film in Ouarzazate!’” Queen of the Desert, a biographical drama about British writer and policy maker Gertrude Bell, was filmed in the surrounding desert in 2014.

Initial filming enquiries filter into Zitouny’s downtown office near the École du Cinéma movie school. The foreign producer or location manager is usually looking for an idea of local dunes, mountains or medieval villages, professional photos of which the Commission director has on his hard drive. Being built up through 2017 is a bespoke database of every carpenter, caterer, grip and extra in Southern Morocco. “That way we can prove that we can offer blockbuster movies and TV shows everything.”


When a production assistant arrives in Zitouny’s office, they are driven straight to the hill village of Aït Benhaddou. If the producer is American, Zitouny shows off its UNESCO-protected kasbah where Prince of Persia was filmed. With Arabian guests, he expounds upon The Message by legendary Syrian director Moustapha Akkat, an Oscar-nominated exodus to Medina epic shot in the same mountain outpost, and a film that won plaudits across the Middle East.

It’s hard for a film lover like Zitouny to admit, but most overseas productions like recent Indian hit Raees rest upon the bottom line. “The movie business is a hard nosed one.” The Ouarzazate Film Commission can smooth import procedures for camera equipment and arrange symbolic entrance fees to local sights. But the enduring allure is the VAT exemption on movies that renders filming 20% cheaper than elsewhere.

“Combined with low costs for hotels, drivers and extras, we can make a movie for 50% less than in the United States or Europe.” A unique bonus is the single permission that grants filming rights literally anywhere in the country. “Try doing that in Paris or Dubai,” smiles Zitouny.

The incentives are paying off. The daily flight link from Ouarzazate’s tiny airstrip to Casablanca, which connects to Royal Air Maroc’s New York shuttle, is welcoming the stars. This year the Musée du Cinema will open two screening rooms so locals can watch their home-made blockbusters, and directors can screen pre-production rushes before hopping into the desert for more last-minute shots. Zitouny led a recent presentation to Morocco’s movie-loving King Mohamed VI, which provoked, in part, a forthcoming additional tax rebate for foreign blockbusters. That’s all well and good, but can Ouarzazate attract the globalized, digitalized moviemakers of tomorrow? And can the film industry ensure that all partake in the big budget pie?

The young man who has saddled himself with those two tasks is another film fanatic livewire. Abdelali Idrissi is co-founder of the brand-new Ouarzazate International Film Festival. Against all odds, he produced an acclaimed short film fiesta on a shoestring budget in 2016. With a passion for inclusivity, Idrissi even screened movies from Iran and Slovenia in his local prison. We meet in Ouarzazate’s Kasbah Taourirt where parts of the original Star Wars movie were filmed.

“It’s great that we welcome Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese,” explains the 37-year-old festival organizer. “But our industry needs a relationship with the set builders or costume workers who don’t always have the technology to watch the movies that they helped to make. Essentially, we are a cinema city without any cinemas.” By screening 100 video shorts on pop-up screens around town – ten of them filmed in Ouarzazate or wider Morocco – crowds of up to 1,000 saw their city on the silver screen, many for the first time.

The Ouarzazate International Film Festival was launched on a wing and a prayer. “We used Facebook, Google Plus and film contacts to spread the message.” Word went viral. Some 3,000 entries flooded in from as far as Indonesia, Pakistan, Colombia, and Nigeria, including 406 from the United States and 192 from Iran. “We were surprised,” laughs Idrissi, a prop master and art director. “Then we realized we were obliged to watch every single short film!” 


The film selection committee was expanded to include Idrissi’s brother Abdessamad, who works in film production in Berlin, and his German colleague Stefan Godskesen. Although the festival is “for all ideologies” each cinematic short was checked for offensive content while a Top 100 was whittled down. The screening dates were set. Some 15 directors booked transport to attend. Just one key ingredient was missing: cash.

“We needed money for screening equipment, sound systems and even meals for attendees,” says Idrissi as he strides around the Kasbah Taourirt ramparts. He presented his festival budget to Atlas Studios and the Ouarzazate Film Commission but there were no takers. “The Commission said that they were also planning a film fair. We said ‘you can do that if you like but ours is happening next month’.” A last-minute

donation from Acwapower, a Saudi Arabian solar power operator, paid for stages and rigs that were being erected the following day. The event’s budget gap was plugged from the pocket of Idrissi and his colleagues.

“It’s fair to say that we lost several kilos in weight during the six days of screening,” explains the festival co-founder. Just 200 people came to the opening night screening of Wintry Spring, a short film about an Egyptian schoolgirl entering womanhood. There were more viewers on day two when a member of the Commission dropped in on Iraqi documentary Dyab depicting a Kurdish Yazidi boy who wants to become a filmmaker. By day three, the daytime screening in Ouarzazate jail (“the prisoners told us to come back next year!”) boosted viewer numbers into four figures. The Commission stepped in with a small donation too.

After an early start on day five, the jury lugged their rented equipment to the film set village of Aït Benhaddou. Here 220 schoolchildren, many of whom had seen Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie filming in the kasbah but had never watched a movie set in their home town, critiqued the competition’s animation section. In all, the event logged 5,000 viewers, nearly half of them under the age of 25. “Of course many people who could not travel to the Moroccan desert were watching each short film on YouTube and thinking about Ouarzazate.”

The make-up of the festival’s real life audience was critically important to Idissi’s aims. Pupils from both the École du Cinema and the Film Faculté got to witness the latest filmmaking techniques while gleaning tips from the directors who had flown in from abroad. More importantly, attendees were granted a tour of the sets and digital facilities at Atlas and CLA Studios. “In ten years’ time, these short film guys might be top directors or producers,” notes Idissi. He hopes to arrange local accommodation for 50 visiting directors for the 2017 edition of the Ouarzazate International Film Festival, which will also feature technical and artistic workshops in both city academies.

The winners of the Film Festival were announced outside the Kasbah Taourirt where Idrissi bids me goodbye. The Learning Alliance, a movie about Lahore garbage sellers striving for an education won the Best Documentary award, while The Last Tar by Iranian director Yshin Nahani won the Best Animation gong. The Moroccan category winner was Corrupt Minds by the aforementioned Mehdi Elkhaoudy who worked as first assistant director on a dozen Ouarzazate productions include Homeland and Game of Thrones.

It’s a far cry from the very first movie shot in the country. Back in 1897 France’s Lumière brothers captured flickering shots of a goatherd in a stereotype vision of the exotic East. Now this new breed of Moroccan filmmakers are using their world class studios to beat the West at their own game.

More Morocco travel and culture stories by Tristan Rutherford can be read here.

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