Descending from Morocco’s Atlas Mountains into the desert below, visitors are confronted with a mirage. The stone walls of medieval Jerusalem loom through the heat haze rising from the sand.
Drawing closer it becomes clear that the ancient city square, which looks remarkably realistic, is in fact a plasterboard film set. It was used in Ridley Scott’s 2005 production Kingdom of Heaven. Attached to its back is a monumental gate that appeared in Game of Thrones.
Welcome to Ouarzazate, gateway to the Sahara and Morocco’s capital of film.
The Jerusalem set is on the lot of Atlas Studios, the biggest in the world by area. It is one of two well-established studios in town and is testament to Ouarzazate’s — and Morocco’s — success in attracting filmmakers.
Last year the country earned an estimated €33m from foreign film and television productions, according to Sarim Fassi-Fihri, head of the Centre Cinématographique Marocain, or CCM, which regulates and promotes the film industry. Morocco’s ability to stand in for almost all Middle East locations — most of which are too unstable for filming — coupled with highly qualified technicians, a streamlined permit system and low prices have helped maintain its attraction for filmmakers.
“For almost a century people have come from abroad to film here in Morocco,” he says. “They come for locations, they come because we are a stable country, we’re relatively close to Europe and we have expertise.”
Ouarzazate, 200km south-east of Marrakesh, has helped drive this success. The former garrison town, with its striking kasbah and dramatic mountain backdrop, has had a long love affair with the film industry. Scenes from the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, were shot here. Pier Paolo Pasolini, who shot his Oedipus Rex in the surrounding desert in 1966, was one of a number of Italian filmmakers who used its desert locations for historical blockbusters.
Pasolini’s Oedipus shoot was a seminal moment for the town, and for Morocco’s film industry. One of the Italian director’s assistants was a young Moroccan film-maker, Suheil Ben Barka, who was then living in Rome (where he had studied film along with Bernardo Bertolucci). He helped Pasolini choose locations in Ouarzazate, and jokes that he was the only person who could understand all the languages on the set.
“At that time it took two days for the cast and crew to travel there, and there was only very basic accommodation,” Mr Ben Barka recalls.
“But Pasolini could see that it was very beautiful. The landscape is paradise for cinema.”
Mr Ben Barka went on to become a critically acclaimed director in his own right and in 1986 the late King Hassan II asked him to become director of the CCM. Ben Barka says the king’s patronage was crucial in developing the industry. “The late king was a cinephile. He had a library of films and a cinema in his palace,” he says. “He asked me how I could develop cinema in Morocco, and I said we need an airport in Ouarzazate. A year later it was built and there were daily flights from Casablanca.”
Mr Ben Barka’s film connections in Italy helped bring producers and directors to Morocco. He also spotted an opportunity to increase US productions when Martin Scorsese was denied permission by Italian and Greek authorities to make his controversial biblical film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Mr Ben Barka gave him a permit for filming in Morocco and Mr Scorsese became a regular visitor. Much of Kundun, his epic biopic of the Dalai Lama, was filmed in Ouarzazate.
Mr Ben Barka recalls the lengths he went to for the director. “We couldn’t use locals as extras because they didn’t look Tibetan, so we flew in 400 villagers from northern India on an Air France jet without passports,” he chuckles. “You couldn’t do that today.”
The huge model Buddhist temple used in Kundun still sits on the Atlas Studios lot. Just outside, in the blinding desert light is a replica fighter jet used in the 1984 production, The Jewel of the Nile. Further on is a faithful reproduction of the prison under Rome’s Coliseum, which was used in the Ridley Scott epic Gladiator.
We flew in 400 villagers from northern India . . . without passports. You couldn’t do that today
“Ouarzazate is alive because of the movies,” says Ghita Tazi, deputy managing director of Sanam Holding’s film division, which owns the studio. “Most of its inhabitants have worked as extras and many local businesses cater to the industry, with artisans who double as set builders and tailors who work as costume designers.”
Tourists can even stay at a hotel inside the studio, when it is not full of film or TV crews. “Last week we had 100 extras walking around the hotel in ancient Egyptian costume in the heat for a commercial,” Ms Tazi laughs. “The tourists were a bit confused.”
The ease of doing business in places like Ouarzazate has maintained Morocco’s attraction for foreign producers, says Fouad Challa, a film producer based in Marrakesh. “A foreign DP [director of photography] or producer will find here what they have at home,” he says. “We also have the technical capacity to replicate conditions elsewhere.”
With the market for film production becoming more competitive, the CCM’s Mr Fassi-Fihri is overhauling industry regulations and bringing in a new 20 per cent rebate that is expected to take effect later this year. He hopes the incentive will give Morocco an edge over its rivals and triple the number of foreign productions. “2017 has been a good year,” he says. “But we can do better.”