Morocco’s stars of the desert

You’ve prob­a­bly seen them or their work in count­less Hol­ly­wood films and TV shows. But what hap­pens when the lights fade? Matteo Fagotto meets the back­ground ex­tras who live a life of hard­ship in the desert. Pho­to­graphs by Matilde Gat­toni

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Matteo Fagotto is a free­lance jour­nal­ist fo­cus­ing on world­wide so­cial and hu­man rights is­sues.

It’s mid-morn­ing when Osama bin Laden leaves his bar­ren, dark, one-room house. Dressed in his usual white robe, mil­i­tary jacket and white cap, he crosses the court­yard, leav­ing few grains for the birds be­fore ex­it­ing the crum­bling, mud-and-straw com­pound. “My dream would be to live and fly just like them” he says with a broad smile light­ing up his calm, wrin­kled face. “At my age, there’s not much I can de­mand from this world.”

Once out­side, his un­mis­tak­able, salt-and­pep­per beard at­tracts so much at­ten­tion from friends, ac­quain­tances and cu­ri­ous tourists that it takes the old man at least 10 min­utes to reach the nearby cig­a­rette shop he runs. Here, hung along the walls of this mi­nus­cule space, are some of the man’s dear­est mem­o­ries. “This is me play­ing in The Ten Com­mand­ments with Omar Sharif. Here I was recit­ing in Prince of Per­sia, this is Prison Break.”

Nick­named Osama bin Laden for his strik­ing re­sem­blance to the de­ceased Al Qaeda leader, 59-year-old Ab­de­laziz Bouyad­naine is a back­ground ac­tor who has ap­peared in more than 100 movies, tele­vi­sion se­ries and doc­u­men­taries. “I love this job. It has given me the op­por­tu­nity to meet top for­eign ac­tors,” says the man whose ca­reer, span­ning three decades, has seen him per­form along­side the likes of Orlando Bloom, Brad Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Bouyad­naine lives in Ouarza­zate, a Moroc­can desert town at the fore­front of the world’s cin­ema in­dus­try. Thanks to its pic­turesque Cas­bah, silent desert and snow-capped moun­tains, this en­chant­ing oa­sis of 70,000 peo­ple has a va­ri­ety of nat­u­ral set­tings that have been used in dif­fer­ent movies, from the all-time-clas­sics Lawrence

of Ara­bia and The Liv­ing Day­lights to mod­ern block­busters such as Gla­di­a­tor, The Mummy and

King­dom of Heaven and re­cent hit tele­vi­sion se­ries such as Prison Break and Game of Thrones. Once a small mil­i­tary out­post, to­day Ouarza­zate boasts two cin­ema stu­dios for lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tions and sev­eral five-star ho­tels for its in­ter­na­tional guests.

Decades of film­ing have de­vel­oped the skills of hun­dreds of lo­cal back­ground ac­tors, who are re­cruited on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. A ver­sa­tile bunch, th­ese movie pro­fes­sion­als have played Ti­betans, bib­li­cal refugees, slaves in an­cient Egypt and ISIL fight­ers. They are the un­sung he­roes of cin­ema who ap­pear in count­less movies, with­out ever be­ing no­ticed. In­ac­tive for months be­tween one pro­duc­tion and the next, dur­ing shoots they work up to 16 hours a day for a pal­try pay of €15 (Dh61) to €25. Af­ter ded­i­cat­ing their lives to cin­ema, most of them end up with no pen­sion and with­out hav­ing earned enough to se­cure their old age.

“I can do any kind of role. I do this job be­cause I love it,” says Saadiya Guar­di­enne, a mid­dle-aged woman, who is even able to cry at com­mand.

Like her, many live within the nar­row, crum­bling al­leys of the Cas­bah Taourirt, Ouarza­zate’s charm­ing Old City. Thanks to her ex­pres­sive fea­tures and hazel eyes, 11-year-old Fa­tima Zahra Al Has­sani has al­ready ap­peared in sev­eral movies. “I was one­and-a-half years old when I did my first one,” she says un­der the sat­is­fied gaze of her mother and sev­eral sib­lings sit­ting in the fam­ily’s crammed liv­ing room. Fa­tima’s big­gest role so far is in 2015’s Rock

the Kas­bah, a Barry Levin­son movie star­ring Bill Mur­ray, where she plays an Afghan girl who steals some flour from a shop in or­der to feed her poor mother. “I liked that movie a lot, but I pre­fer Cleopa­tra, where I was dressed like a lit­tle princess,” she adds with a smile. Al­though her dream is to be­come a world-class ac­tress, her mother doesn’t let her skip school to play an or­di­nary ex­tra, but makes ex­cep­tions when she is signed up for some big­ger roles. “They can be paid up to €50 per day. That money helps our fam­ily a lot,” she con­fesses.

Lo­cated on the out­skirts of town, At­las and CLA stu­dios host the bulk of the shoot­ings. Walk­ing through their gates is a sur­real trip into the heart of cin­ema. Amid the swel­ter­ing desert arise Jerusalem, Egyp­tian tem­ples, Afghan vil­lages, Greek vil­las and Cru­saders’ cas­tles – all per­fectly re­pro­duced.

At­las was built in 1984 for The Jewel of the Nile, star­ring Michael Dou­glas and Kathleen Turner. The fake fighter-bomber used in the film and an au­to­graphed pic­ture of the two ac­tors still adorns the en­trance of the stu­dio. Three years later, a real heavy­weight came into town. “At that time I was head of the Moroc­can Cin­e­mato­graphic Cen­ter and Martin Scors­ese was hav­ing a hard time find­ing a shoot­ing ground for The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ be­cause of his con­tro­ver­sial plot,” re­calls 74-year-old Moroc­can film di­rec­tor Souheil Ben Barka. “When he asked to do it in Ouarza­zate, we gave him ev­ery­thing he wanted. Af­ter fly­ing back to the US, he [gave us] great pub­lic­ity within the in­dus­try.”

In 2015, Morocco hosted 46 for­eign pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing long and short movies, tele­films and TV se­ries – 65 per cent of which were made in Ouarza­zate. Ac­cord­ing to the Ouarza­zate Film Com­mis­sion, the costs of pro­duc­tion there are be­tween 30 and 50 per cent lower than in the West, thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of fis­cal in­cen­tives, cash re­funds and low-waged, skilled tech­ni­cians. “Some of them are among the best in the world,” says Ben Barka. “The first Amer­i­can pro­duc­tions used to bring 150 for­eign tech­ni­cians and give work to 20 lo­cals. Now the pro­por­tions have been re­versed.”

Yet, con­vinc­ing lo­cals to par­tic­i­pate wasn’t easy at first. In the 80s, the so­ci­ety was quite tra­di­tional and fea­tur­ing in movies, es­pe­cially for women, wasn’t well-re­garded. Pro­duc­tions of­ten had to bring ex­tras from cities such as Casablanca and Mar­rakech. “When The Jewel of the

Nile came in town, I went to the cast­ing out of cu­rios­ity. I was an or­phan, so there was no one for­bid­ding me,” says Guar­di­enne, one of the first lo­cal ac­tors. Since then, this solemn-look­ing woman has fea­tured in more than 50 movies, but her de­but is still the one she re­mem­bers with most af­fec­tion. “Kathleen Turner was so beau­ti­ful and kind. She had a lot of pa­tience with all of us, even when we made mis­takes,” she says. “When I brought my daugh­ter on the set, she gifted her with a lot of clothes.”

Morocco’s po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and tol­er­ance has also con­tributed to Ouarza­zate’s for­tunes, mak­ing it a favourite desti­na­tion to shoot films that are nom­i­nally set in war-torn coun­tries such as Afghanistan and Pak­istan. “Here there is great free­dom of ex­pres­sion,” says 55-year-old Khadija Alami, a lo­cal pro­ducer who has worked on

Cap­tain Phillips and whose com­pany is cur­rently co-pro­duc­ing the sixth se­ries of the TV show

Home­land. “When it comes to movies, the only pro­hi­bi­tions are pornog­ra­phy or scripts that den­i­grate our king or Is­lam.”

The in­hab­i­tants of the Cas­bah still re­mem­ber with amuse­ment the film­ing of Rules of En­gage­ment, a 2000 movie star­ring Tommy Lee Jones and Sa­muel Jack­son, which re­volves around an at­tack on the US em­bassy in Sanaa, Ye­men, by a mob and the re­tal­i­a­tion by the Amer­i­can army. “Hun­dreds of peo­ple signed up. The pro­duc­tion had to hire the whole Cas­bah and pay the peo­ple not to leave their houses for the whole day,” re­mem­bers Naceur Ou­jri, a 68-year-old back­ground ac­tor. “There were mil­i­tary he­li­copters fly­ing over and fake ex­plo­sions ev­ery­where. It was a lot of fun.”

Just like a movie set, this oth­er­wise sleepy town springs back to life ev­ery time a new pro­duc­tion ar­rives. While hun­dreds of back­ground ac­tors queue up for the cast­ings, lo­cal ar­ti­sans are con­tracted to re­store and dec­o­rate the sets and to man­u­fac­ture the nec­es­sary ac­ces­sories and or­na­ments. Mbarek Arouaie, 50, has been work­ing as a cin­ema ar­ti­san for the past two decades and can man­u­fac­ture ev­ery­thing from Ro­man swords and hel­mets to Egyp­tians jew­els and or­na­ments. His best mem­o­ries are linked to Kun­dun, Scors­ese’s 1997 film on the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. “It was by far the big­gest pro­duc­tion we ever had,” says Arouaie. “Hun­dreds of ex­tras were brought from Asia to im­per­son­ate Bud­dhist monks. The film stayed in town for al­most a year, giv­ing work to the whole city.” Kun­dun’s still-in­tact tem­ple is one of the main at­trac­tions at At­las stu­dios, but the pro­lif­er­a­tion of visual ef­fects in mod­ern cin­ema has lately dealt a blow to the lo­cal ac­tors and ar­ti­san in­dus­try. “Be­fore, pro­duc­tions used to or­der 3,000 cop­per swords to shoot a scene,” says Arouaie. “Now they just or­der two or three and make the rest out of wood.”

Arouaie’s con­cerns are shared by the stu­dios and the ac­tors, who see their rel­e­vance in cin­ema threat­ened by com­put­ers. In a re­cent movie, set in an­cient Egypt, the pro­duc­tion hired just 20 ex­tras for a tem­ple scene, but added hun­dreds more in post-pro­duc­tion. “The world is chang­ing. Why build a movie set if you can re­pro­duce it dig­i­tally at a lesser cost?” says Ben Barka. “Thanks to the dig­i­tal ef­fects, the re­cent TV se­ries on Ben-Hur is much bet­ter than the orig­i­nal movie with Charl­ton He­ston.”

This poses new chal­lenges to a city with­out in­dus­tries and lit­tle tourism and whose econ­omy is heav­ily de­pen­dent on cin­ema. Yet, af­ter three dif­fi­cult years caused by the global re­ces­sion, Ouarza­zate has re­cently seen a re­bound with the host­ing of Queen of the Desert, A Holo­gram for the

King and this year’s fifth sea­son of Prison Break. Ben Barka pre­dicts “2017 will be a good year”. “A big Chi­nese-Amer­i­can pro­duc­tion will shoot here for 10 months. It will be a huge project.”

From her leafy house in Casablanca, Alami is so con­fi­dent in the fu­ture that she is build­ing her own stu­dios in the oa­sis of Fint, a few kilo­me­tres out­side Ouarza­zate. Once com­pleted, K Stu­dios will re­sem­ble Ge­orge Lu­cas’s Sky­walker movie ranch in Cal­i­for­nia, al­beit on a much smaller scale. “The dif­fer­ence is that he moves around his prop­erty on he­li­copter, while I can still tour mine on foot,” she jokes. One of the next projects she would like to em­bark on is to build a movie theatre in Ouarza­zate, as the “cap­i­tal of cin­ema” hasn’t had one in decades.

Most back­ground ac­tors never get to see the movies they play in. From their des­ti­tute houses, the glit­ter­ing cin­ema in­dus­try has a very dif­fer­ent look. When pro­duc­tions are not in town, the ma­jor­ity of them sur­vive by do­ing mod­est jobs just like Guar­di­enne, who man­ages a small com­mu­nal oven where lo­cal women bake flat­breads. “This is what I earn in a day,” she says show­ing a few coins, the equiv­a­lent of €3. For her and for most of the ac­tors in the Cas­bah, the dreams of a daz­zling ca­reer end up in noth­ing. Once they re­tire, a few yel­lowed pho­tos and their cin­ema mem­o­ries are of­ten the only thing they are left with. “I have had a very hard life, but I am not the only one here,” says Guar­di­enne, this time wip­ing real tears off her eyes. “Next time I would like to play a role in which I change the lives of our peo­ple.”

Matilde Gat­toni for The Na­tional

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