The North African country that serves as a stand in for the Middle East and central Asia in movies and in shows such as Homeland and Game of Thrones, is drawing tourists to its cinematic locales.
OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO-Like the handful of other homes within the mud-walled village of Ait Benhaddou, Mohamed Kachir’s living room has two things: a vertical loom for weaving the colourful Berber carpets famous throughout Morocco and a portrait of Russell Crowe.
Kachir, 31, a part-time tour guide, was 15 when he first met the star, when Crowe and director Ridley Scott came to “the door of the desert” near Morocco’s High Atlas mountains in 1999 to films scenes for the Oscar-winning drama Gladiator.
“Russell Crowe was good,” recalls Kachir before pouring mint tea for visitors. Photo albums hold pictures from the Gladiator set, along with stills from other films shot at Ait Benhaddou, including Babel, Kingdom of Heaven and from Kachir’s last job as an extra, TV’s Game of Thrones.
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Morocco prides itself on its Mollywood nickname, earned over the past 50 years as its popularity as a filming location has grown.
No, the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic Casablanca wasn’t filmed here. Warner Bros. California studios gets that credit, although there is a replica Rick’s Café about 430 kilometres away in Casablanca that is surprisingly good.
But plenty of other films have been made all over the North African country. The heart of Mollywood is the town of Ouarzazate, about 30 kilometres from Ait Benhaddou.
With its three film studios, more than 2,000 people living there are employed in the movie and TV industry, including 1,000 who work as extras, such as Kachir.
Ouarzazate is enthusiastic about its entertainment ties, with movie-themed public art in the middle of the town’s traffic roundabouts.
Guide Mohamed Saidi credits, “the natural traits and special light. They can’t find it elsewhere,” with bringing filmmakers to Morocco. Plus, it can look like anywhere from Afghanistan to ancient Egypt onscreen.
Romantic, historic Ait Benhaddou has unique charms. The UNESCO World Heritage Site sits on the former caravan route to Marrakech. It seems a product of fantasy, dotted with towers and ringed by brown-red mud walls rising in the middle of the rocky desert above date palms and a brilliant green oasis.
A ksar, it’s one of more than 1,000 fortified villages in Morocco and among the best preserved. Built in the 16th century, it’s joined to the “newer” town across the river by a pedestrian bridge. Stepping stones can also be used when the river is low and for a small tip, local kids will happily carry knapsacks and purses.
Ait Benhaddou has to be explored on foot — no cars are allowed —and while a guide is helpful and can ensure entrance to a local home to sip mint tea, eat homemade almond paste-filled cookies and hear from a family about how they live, there are posted maps to help independent travellers.
A short walk up the hill leads to the ksar, the narrow streets revealing a mosque, former synagogue and eight small kasbahs, or walled forts with towers. A few dollars buys a painting of the village done in saffron, tea, sugar and water that appears almost invisible at first, the image revealed as the artist passes it over a gas flame to a rising scent of crème brûlée.
It’s a place of narrow alleys with tiny shops, steep stairways, dark passages and a few homes, where doors are still secured by carved wooden lock boxes opened with cedar keys that look like an elephant’s toothbrush.
Kachir likes to quote Crowe’s Maximus from Gladiator: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”
Not so for movie sets. Ait Benhaddou’s heritage status means the arena constructed for the key scene from Gladiator has come down. Yet Gladiator graffiti on a wall, movie stills on display, signs listing films made here and the locals’ memories of the times movie stars were in their village remain.
Hollywood came calling to this region with David Lean’s 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia. A watch tower set still stands at the river at Ait Benhaddou, something any movie nerd will be thrilled to discover. It’s beside another fabricated set piece, a wide gate built for a dramatic air stunt scene in The Jewel of the Nile.
Much of the ksar had been restored for the 1977 TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. That preservation has continued, an investment that has paid off with increased tourist traffic, although the last thing shot here was an episode of Game of Thrones in 2012.
Abderrazzak Zitouny, director of the Ouarzazate Film Commission, says the variety of landscapes and well-trained crews (plus plenty of extras) draws filmmakers here.
Morocco is also a politically stable place to shoot authentic-looking scenes set in Middle East and central Asia for shows such as Homeland and films including Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, while Ait Benhaddou has offered a splendid backdrop for movies such as Alexander and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Ouarzazate has a movie museum and inexpensive tours of two of its three film studios, Atlas Studio Corp. and CLR, founded by Italy’s Cinecittà Studios and late director Dino De Laurentiis.
If you wanted to complete your Morocco experience by looking for some of the locals on the big screen, that has to wait until you get home. Ouarzazate’s only cinema has closed.
Linda Barnard is the Toronto Star’s former movie writer.
When you go
Get there: Air Canada (aircanada.com) and Royal Air Maroc (royalairmaroc.com) have direct flights from Montreal to Casablanca. In-country flights, buses, tours, a rental car or day-hire Grands Taxis can take you around Morocco from there.
Stay: Hotel Le Fint in Ouarzazate (finthotel.com) has an outdoor pool and generous breakfast buffet and is walking distance to Taourirt Kasbah.
Take a guided tour: I took a two-week organized tour around Morocco with Adventures Abroad (adventures-abroad.com), but there are plenty of day or overnight trips to Ait Benhaddou and Ouarzazate from Marrakech that include the spectacular Tizi N’Tichka pass in the High Atlas mountains.
Eat: Chez Dimitri (Avenue Mohamed V). Think of this lively bistro in a circa-1928 building as Ouarzazate’s version of New York staple Sardi’s. Movie posters from locally shot productions and autographed photos of stars who have dined here fill the walls. Good service and a menu that features tagines and moussaka. Alcohol is available.
Tips: English is spoken in large cities but most places you’ll need French or Arabic. Western toilets are common but you may only see squat versions on the road. Carry toilet paper or tissues and 1 dirham coin to pay the female washroom attendant.