He can report. But can he act?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Haas, who has a reputation for bringing a sense of place to even small-budget pictures, brought me in to play the bureau chief of a Baghdad-based photo agency, a minor character. Also in the way of full disclosure, I wasn't paid for my role and have no stake in the film.

Haas, whose last film "Up at the Villa," starring Sean Penn was well reviewed in this paper, is racing to have one of the first big-screen dramas released about America's war in Iraq. By Hollywood standards his $1 million budget is a shoe-string, provided by first-time producer Michael Sternberg and a partner.

On the set

The laconic Mr. Sternberg is probably the most relaxed man on the bustling set. After my first, bumbling attempts at my scene, I turn to him and say, "You've just watched your money go down the toilet, haven't you?" He puts an arm around my shoulder and says, "You'll be great, Dan."

The movie is at least one of two dramas about Iraq that are currently in the works, the other a big-budget look at the first battle for Fallujah set to star Harrison Ford. It's based on a book written by Bing West, a former assistant Defense secretary.

"The Situation" makes no claim to represent actual events in Iraq, but Haas is taking great care to get the look and feel of Iraq right. That's one reason he wanted someone like me around. I brought in some Baghdad posters to dress up a typical reporter's hotel rooms.

Getting ready to film a scene of the Iraqi photographer arriving at Baghdad's Hamra Hotel, where the Monitor's bureau was once located, two hulking Moroccan extras - who will act as hotel security guards - are being taught the proper military handling of AK-47s by a security adviser.

One look from Wendell and me, and the big fellas are out of the movie. Instead, we pick three scrawny men in T-shirts and ragged pants who are working on the set. I explain to them how to hold their rifles as if they are slightly absurd fashion accessories, rather than instruments of death. I ask the military adviser if the stocks on these particular AKs can be removed, conforming to Baghdad security-guard style. They can't.

"But why would anyone ever do that? You can't shoot straight that way," he says.

"That's Iraq," I tell him.

Capturing reality

Getting it right in a movie like this is important to the people who have lived the real versions of war. Lewis, who played Captain Winters in "Band of Brothers," the series about the 101st Airborne in World War II, was recently approached by a soldier.

"Captain Winters,'' he asked.

"Well, if you like,'' said Lewis, who recounted the story to me. The man goes on to say that he was a Seabee (a naval engineer) working with Marines in southern Iraq last year, and though he thought he was there to work on reconstruction, the marines quickly handed him a rifle and reminded him that "this is combat."

During their down time, the men would gather around computers to watch DVDs of "Band of Brothers" over and over, and while watching a sequence recreating the Battle of Bastogne, they came under a persistent insurgent mortar barrage.

The soldier reached into his pocket and pulled out his dog-tags. "These kept me safe in Iraq, and I want you to have them.''

Lewis protested, "I'm just an actor." But the man put up a hand. "No, this is important to me. I want you to have this."

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