Bi­ble sto­ries, thrillers boost Morocco film­ing

But coun­try still faces stiff com­pe­ti­tion from other na­tions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - TRAVEL - By Paul Schemm

OUARZA­ZATE, Morocco — “QUIET!” The cry rings out in English, French and Ara­bic across the cob­ble­stoned streets of Jerusalem, as film­ing be­gins for a scene in the se­ries A.D. The Bi­ble Con­tin­ues.

But while the arched door­ways, bal­conies and fur­nish­ings all say Ro­man-era Is­rael, the real-life set­ting is south­ern Morocco.

View­ers in Amer­ica and else­where in the world may not know it but they have seen a lot of Morocco in the past year. It has served as the Bagh­dad of Amer­i­can Sniper, the Tehran seen in TV se­ries Home­land, the Mali of Amer­i­can Odyssey and the Egypt that will ap­pear in the minis­eries King Tut. Morocco has also been So­ma­lia nu­mer­ous times, in­clud­ing in the 2001 film Black­hawk Down, and more re­cently in the 2013 Cap­tain Philips. And it will be Saudi Ara­bia in this year’s Holo­gram for a King star­ring Tom Hanks.

All in all, it has been a ban­ner year for Morocco’s sta­tus as a gi­gan­tic film-set — with $120 mil­lion spent by for­eign film pro­duc­tions in the coun­try last year, more than in the past five years put to­gether.

The North African king­dom is rid­ing high on its rep­u­ta­tion for sta­bil­ity and ex­otic lo­cales, but in­dus­try of­fi­cials say that Morocco needs to do more — and of­fer more in­cen­tives — to re­al­ize its po­ten­tial as a film­ing des­ti­na­tion. It is con­tend­ing with in­creas­ingly stiff com­pe­ti­tion from South Africa and other coun­tries that of­fer deep tax re­bates.

For Morocco’s film in­dus­try, the fu­ture de­pends on the right pack­age of sweet­en­ers to per­suade stu­dios to do more than just film ex­te­ri­ors here but also use lo­cal fa­cil­i­ties. The ul­ti­mate goal is to get Hol­ly­wood to film en­tire movies in Morocco, said Sarim Fassi-Fihri, head of the Moroc­can Cen­ter for Cin­e­matog­ra­phy, which over­sees the in­dus­try.

“The day tax in­cen­tives come to Morocco, the whole in­dus­try will move here,” he said, cut­ting a cin­e­matic fig­ure him­self, sport­ing a fe­dora and puff­ing on a cigar. “If we make $120 mil­lion to­day, with tax in­cen­tives we could go up to $200-$250 mil­lion.”

He pulled out a sheaf of pub­lic­ity brochures from com­peti­tors in Turkey, Colom­bia, Mace­do­nia, the Nether­lands, Ire­land, even the Canadian prov­ince of Man­i­toba, with promised tax re­bates of 20-40 per cent plas­tered across the cov­ers to en­tice film com­pa­nies.

Ever since 1962, when David Lean filmed scenes from Lawrence of Ara­bia in Morocco, film com­pa­nies have been us­ing its deserts, moun­tains and cities as stand-ins for ex­otic lo­ca­tions. At the vast At­las Stu­dios com­plex in Ouarza­zate — Morocco’s desert Hol­ly­wood perched be­tween the High At­las and the Sa­hara — there are sets from dozens of movies from the past decades.

Here, it’s pos­si­ble to ride the camel used by Ni­cole Kid­man in the up­com­ing Queen of the Desert past the pharaonic sets from 2002 French film As­terix and Obe­lix Meet Cleopa­tra to the for­ti­fi­ca­tions Ri­d­ley Scott built to recre­ate me­dieval Jerusalem for the 2005 cru­sader film King­dom of Heaven.

Morocco has fallen in and out of fash­ion as a movie set over the decades. One main­stay has been bi­b­li­cal films, and that busi­ness is boom­ing now with the Bi­ble-craze tak­ing off in Amer­ica. At one point over the win­ter, there were three ac­tors play­ing Je­sus in dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions stay­ing at the main ho­tel in Ouarza­zate.

The new boom comes off some lean years, be­gin­ning with the 2008 global fi­nan­cial cri­sis and ex­ac­er­bated by the 2011 Arab Spring un­rest that led in­sur­ers to pull film com­pa­nies out of the Mid­dle East. But in the case of Morocco, they came back.

Morocco stands out for be­ing blessed with the peo­ple and land­scapes needed to sat­isfy re­newed in­ter­est in the Mid­dle East, while hav­ing none of the ag­i­ta­tion com­mon else­where.

“The Arab Spring did help us, ac­tu­ally, when ev­ery­one was more wor­ried to come to Tu­nisia and ev­ery­where else, they were com­ing to Morocco be­cause it was a lot safer,” said Khadija Alami, head of one of Morocco’s sev­eral lo­cal pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies that part­ner with in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies.

Alami first worked on the 1985 Chevy Case com­edy Spies like Us, soon fol­lowed by Ishtar, be­fore found­ing her own pro­duc­tion com­pany in 1998. It or­ga­nizes crews, per­mis­sions and film­ing lo­ca­tions for shoots.

The in­dus­try has also been boosted by of­fi­cial sup­port. While the state has yet to ap­prove tax re­bates, it does make it easy to work in Morocco and is happy to lend the ser­vices of the Moroc­can army for a rea­son­able fee.

Aside from the he­li­copters, the mil­i­tary equip­ment used in Black­hawk Down largely came from the Moroc­can army. Sol­diers also of­ten play ex­tras when huge crowd scenes are called for.

The gov­ern­ment even al­lowed the main high­way be­tween Mar­rakech and the sea­side town of Agadir to be closed for three weeks last year for Mission Im­pos­si­ble 5. Lo­cal me­dia later cred­ited the clo­sure for a drug bust — when a car full of co­caine ran afoul of a po­lice check­point in the de­tour.

Most im­por­tant is Morocco’s rep­u­ta­tion for tol­er­ance re­gard­ing themes other Mus­lim coun­tries might find un­palat­able. Bi­b­li­cal sto­ries are out of the ques­tion in some con­ser­va­tive coun­tries and the cur­rent vogue for thrillers set in the Mid­dle East is too po­lit­i­cal for many Is­lamic coun­tries.

“There is a big boom here be­cause of its na­ture as the most lib­eral of the Mus­lim coun­tries,” said Ea­mon Pa­trick, a line pro­ducer for “A.D.”

“So any film­ing that uses a con­tem­po­rary Mid­dle East set­ting, they do a lot of it here,” Pa­trick said.

‘There is a big boom here be­cause of its na­ture as the most lib­eral of the Mus­lim coun­tries’

PHO­TOS BY PAUL SCHEMM / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Film­ing equip­ment is left out­side the arched set for Pon­tius Pi­late’s palace in the TV se­ries A.D. in Ouarza­zate, Morocco. It has been a ban­ner year for film­ing in Morocco with more money spent by for­eign film pro­duc­tions in the coun­try in 2014 than in the past five years put to­gether, as it rides on its rep­u­ta­tion for sta­bil­ity and ex­otic lo­cales.

A tai­lor sews cos­tumes for the TV se­ries A.D. in the city of Ouarza­zate, Morocco.

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