Ouarzazate Hollywood in Morocco
Tuesday, September 8th, 2009
By Natalia Gorzawski
When most people hear the word Casablanca, they think automatically of the film classic with Ingrid Bergmann and Humphrey Bogart rather than Morocco’s largest city. That great film made the city famous and bathed the whole country in Hollywood’s magic glow.
But while almost every tourist visiting Morocco gets carried away searching the streets of Casablanca for Rick’s Cafe, true film fans today are more likely to be drawn to the south of the country. At the edge of the Atlas Mountains, in a small town with the unpronounceable name of Ouarzazate, a true mecca for film enthusiasts has emerged.
And there is not even one public movie theater there. But then who wants to waste their vacation time here sitting in front of a movie screen? Movies – they mean either work or money, or an interactive family album in the video recorder, not only to the film crews that come here, who appreciate Morocco’s beautiful landscape and low labor costs, but also to the people of Ouarzazates, who often earn their livelihood the year round as film extras. Tourists as well would prefer learning more of the film business in Ouarzazate by way of a sightseeing tour through the local movie studios than the simple pleasure of watching a film on the screen.
Along side the blockbusters of Hollywood greats like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and Ridley Scott, more reasonably costing biblical films and historical documentary films have been and are being shot here. The untouched desert landscape, the small clay buildings and the many kasbahs in the area offer an outstanding backdrop for all productions that must avoid the signs of modern civilization and shun additional costs and bureaucratic hurdles.
And so it can happen that visitors to Ouarzazate will find a Jerusalem or Gizeh corresponding more to their romanticized image than the original sites filled with tourists. Many are willingly carried away by this world of illusion and often overlook the fact that there is a reality and life behind all the movie tinsel.
Even this has been the subject of a film. Ali Essafi dared to take a look behind the scenery in his documentary film Ouarzazate Movie. He focused on the people of the city, their life and work with and for the film industry. While prominent directors and the producers of film commercials come and go in a continuous stream, the locals usually stay all their lives in Ouarzazate. It is they who, day after day, slip into an unending variety of roles for many hours in the burning heat, lending their faces to the most diverse of eras and religions in order to transport film fans the world over into a beautiful and exciting world of illusion. With their help, the idyllic little spot and its surroundings are turned into either ancient Rome, as in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, 20th century Tibet, as in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, or simply be itself, the fabulous Moroccan landscape it is, as in the film Babel with Brad Pitt, for example.
It becomes clear that life in the Moroccan Hollywood basically goes on as it does in many other places in the country, based on the same principles and traditions with emphasis being placed on hospitality, quality time being spent with the family, and images of the Hand of Fatima protecting the people and their possessions. Local details can almost always be found in a concentrated search of films shot in Ouarzazate, revealing a backdrop typical of North Africa despite a Wailing Wall or Jaffa Gate.
And what of the filmatic milestone, Casablanca? The original locations, including Rick’s Café, are to be found neither in Ouarzazate nor in Casablanca. The whole production was shot in studios in Hollywood, USA. All the same, visitors to Morocco who cannot do without immersing themselves in the wonderful world of the legendary romantic love story at least have the opportunity of listening to the strains of As Time Goes By and dreaming a little of Bogart and Bergmann in a reproduction of the famed bar.