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He can report. But can he act?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 2005


Arriving at passport control in Morocco, I was reminded of the strange cultural milieu of this country - a proud member of the Arab League with one foot still in Le Monde Francophone.

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I usually jot my profession as "writer" on immigration forms, an ambiguity many reporters rely on to deflect awkward questioning. I offered a greeting of "Salaam alaikum" to the Moroccan immigration officer. He leafed through my passport, then asked something in French. I mumbled in bad French that I didn't understand.

His tone changed. It was enough to worry me even as he stamped my passport. "You don't speak French and you call yourself a writer? Bah!" he snorted, then delivered a dismissive Gallic wave that sped my departure from his counter.

It might not have spared me his scorn, but what I should have put on the form was "actor." I had been given a small part in a movie about the Iraq war.

Moviegoers are seeing much more of Morocco these days whether they realize it or not. The country has become a favorite of Hollywood, with its blend of open spaces, shabby villages, and first-rate hotels. Oliver Stone filmed his epic "Alexander" here. Ridley Scott staged "Gladiator" here as well, and recreated Mogadishu, Somalia, for his hit "Black Hawk Down." [Editor's note: The original version misstated the director of "Alexander."]

The country, a French colony until 1956, doesn't have the red-tape that makes picturesque Egypt a no-go zone for foreign filmmakers. Mohammed VI, the country's chief of state, is also a movie-buff king who often can be counted on to secure the cooperation - at cheap prices - of his military for a film's action sequences.

To be sure, Morocco can present some thorny issues to filmmakers. A suicide attack in Casablanca in May 2003 killed 45 people and scared away at least one big-budget feature (Australian Baz Luhrmann's take on Alexander the Great).

But Morocco remains a choice location for Middle Eastern sets - seen as much safer and more comfortable than bringing American movie stars elsewhere in the region.

In the interests of full disclosure, my good friend Wendell Steavenson wrote the script of the film I've traveled here to be part of. Director Philip Haas read a piece of hers on the Iraq insurgency in the literary magazine Granta and gave her a call. Wendell, looking around for an American-sounding name for the character of a conflicted Coalition Provisional Authority cum CIA operative in Baghdad, used mine.

Aside from the charm and dash of Damian Lewis, the British actor known for his role in the HBO series "Band of Brothers" who was chosen for the part, I bear no resemblance to the "Dan Murphy" coming to a theater near you.

I have no idea if Mr. Haas's drama, called "The Situation," will bomb or triumph at the box office. The plot seeks to tease out the confusions and the disappointments of the Iraq war while exploring a love triangle between the fake Dan Murphy, an American journalist played by the Danish actress Connie Nielsen, and an Iraqi photographer played by German-Egyptian Mido Hamada.

In a plot that explores some of the same territory as Graham Greene's "The Quiet American," the fictional Murphy wades into the murky world of Iraq's tribal politics. In doing so, his ideals clash with realities of war.