“He looks like Osama Bin Laden”,
The man beamed at me. We were after all, in probably the only place on earth where that would count as a compliment.
Ouarzazate in Morocco is all about the movies – if you can cultivate the right look to play the ultimate evil villain, or his sidekick, there might be work in it. Plenty of work – in fact more than half of the people living in this desert city are involved in the movie business. Western filmmakers and TV producers come here on the lookout for stunning locations – you’re spoilt for choice – and a ready supply of extras. If you don’t get a part as a bearded terrorist or man in street market, the chances are, you’d be working as a set builder, or in film hospitality.
To get to our Moroccan movie mecca, we drove for six hours from Marrakesh, across the imposing Atlas Mountains, or Tibet as Martin Scorsese would have us believe – his 1997 film Kundun, about the 14th Dalai Lama, was filmed, not in Tibet, but right here. The snow-capped mountain range overlooks the desert, and filming here was cheaper and logistically easier. Tibet, Baghdad, Tehran – this region has stood in for them all on screen.
It was David Lean who started the cinematic gold rush here. A visit to Morocco resulted in 1962’s epic Laurence of Arabia.
You want weeping women in the crowd? I met several who have perfected the art of crying on cue. Bearded men? Here they grow facial hair in readiness for the big screen.
The big deal right now is Yousef. Or Ouarzazate’s Brad Pitt as he’s known in these parts. When Ridley Scott arrived to make Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, with Ouarzazate playing Jerusalem, he needed strong men to play the locals fighting the invading Christians. Yousef Marchouki made the grade, and from his on-screen debut fighting on the ramparts – the castle built for the film still stands in the desert – he trained as a stunt man and the jobs rolled in. He took out his phone to replay for me his proudest moment – as a guard in the hit series Game of Thrones, Khaleesi by his side. The Big Time. Filmed here.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen? Filmed in in Ouarzazate. Homeland? Filmed here. Prison Break? Ditto.
Isn’t it insulting to have your North African country used as the generic stand for the Middle East, I ask the tourist boss? As if all countries in the Eastern hemisphere look the same to the Western eye? He’s matter of fact. For filmmakers, it’s too dangerous to film in Iraq or Afghanistan he says, Morocco has so far avoided the political turmoil and violence that has struck some of its neighbours.
And the government here knows a good thing – it offers generous tax breaks to film crews. That, and a plentiful and willing supply of labour lure the producers, and the dollars, many millions of them, roll in.
I walked the streets where Gladiator was filmed, strolled passed the fighter plane used when Jewel in the Nile was made here, through Egyptian tombs used countless times on TV and film, at every turn it was more Hollywood than Hollywood.
And on every street corner, the potential Game of Thrones Unsullied and the biblical-looking extras were waiting for their big screen moment.
I attempted my own, a camel ride, in some of the most beautiful scenery I have every encountered. Well, if it’s good enough for Laurence of Arabia…