Why Morocco went Hollywood
For decades, it's been a stand-in for Saudi Arabia, Tibet, Egypt, the American West – and now, Iraq.
In the deep south of a country where few locals drink, fewer speak English, and the metric system reigns supreme, you'll find a derelict gas station whose sign promises, "Cold beer. Last stop 200 miles."Skip to next paragraph
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It's one of several structures near this garrison town that may disrupt a visitor's expectations. Just to the north, a European-style medieval castle rises from the rocky plain. Closer to town, a pair of grimacing, gold-painted lions guard a Tibetan temple that's been slightly damaged by fire.
The buildings are all sets from American films – "The Hills Have Eyes 2," "Kingdom of Heaven," and "Kundun," respectively – and they represent traces of a multimillion-dollar industry that has bloomed in the Moroccan desert. Without realizing it, filmgoers worldwide have seen a remarkable number of this country's landscapes onscreen. The locations are sometimes unadorned, sometimes computer-enhanced, but they're nearly always standing in for somewhere else.
"I didn't have any clue about it," says Gonçalo Gomes, a Portuguese vacationer who spent a recent morning poking around Moroccan backdrops from "Gladiator," "The Mummy Returns," and "Jewel of the Nile."
"In Portugal, we don't have a big industry for films," he says. "We just assume that every single one of them is made in studios in Hollywood."
Morocco's film trade embodies many of the contradictions facing this modernizing Muslim nation. Here, camera-friendly vistas conceal endemic poverty; the stability loved by studios issues from a king who brooks little dissent; and one of the Arab world's more tolerant, peaceful countries has embraced an industry that dwells consistently on the region's violence.
"Body of Lies," "Stop-Loss," and the upcoming Matt Damon vehicle "Green Zone" are just a few of the Iraq war films made here since the conflict began. The pattern vexes Jack Shaheen, the Lebanese-American author of "Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11" and other books critiquing Arab media stereotypes.
"These images represent everything Morocco is not," Dr. Shaheen says. "They're the same images that are repeated over and over again, so that when people hear the word Arab or Muslim, they automatically think violence."
Moroccan officials insist audiences are savvy enough to distinguish between life and art. "Let's be a little bit adult about this – it's fiction," says Nour Eddine Sail, director of the Moroccan Film Center, a government agency that regulates the film trade. And there are few incentives for thinking otherwise. "If we refuse a film, nothing stops an American producer from making it in a studio," Mr. Sail says.
In 2008, foreign directors shot more than 600 television and movie projects in Morocco, including 16 feature-length films, by the government's count. Sail estimates that foreign productions bring more than $50 million to the country each year. To keep that money coming in, authorities give tax breaks to film productions and even offer logistical help from the Moroccan military.
The latter practice dates back to some of the earliest foreign films shot on Moroccan soil. A column of Turkish troops massacred by Peter O'Toole's character in the 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia" was played in large part by soldiers on loan from the Moroccan Army.
Morocco's spectacular terrain and abundant light make cinematographers swoon, but big productions find a more compelling reason to come, says Amine Tazi, general manager of the Casablanca-based Atlas and CLA Studios, whose sets have graced dozens of American films. "The bottom line is, it's very cheap."