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Africans say 'no deal' to $14 million movie studio

Local South Africans recently refused to sell ancestral land to filmmakers eager for a desert set.

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"We thought we did have a deal. The provincial government said we could have a 99-year lease instead of buying the land outright which we agreed. But we never heard anything."

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The plans would have seen the consortium pay $1.5 million for 62,000 acres, which Markgraaff says is three times its value. The residents would also get a 74,000-acre plot in Goeboop – some 50 miles away – as further compensation.

After Desert Star Productions first courted local and provincial governments, potential partners, and produced a glossy 102-page brochure that included a letter of support from Mel Gibson, the management approached the residents at public meetings on site.

The Rev. Cyril Smith, whose cathedral would have been made into a Mexican village film set, says the consortium miscalculated the level of opposition and the legal status of the land. "They should have consulted the residents first but they didn't, which made them very angry," he says. "The government, as trustees, aren't allowed to sell this land without their consent, so the film studios will not happen."

Markgraaff says he was surprised at the opposition. "This area is desperately poor with 70 percent unemployment, high rates of AIDS, and limited facilities like hospitals and schools.

"We had letters of support from the [African National Congress] Youth League, the ANC Women's League, and another group begging us to make it happen," Markgraaff says. "They're not doing anything with this land."

"You only have to look at Quarzazate in Morocco to see the potential," says Markgraaff. "There was nothing there before they built production facilities – now they've produced 42 films in the past 10 years attracting investment of $1.2 billion."

He said the consortium has now agreed to a deal with a landowner across the border in Namibia to build a studio there.

Property and land consultant T.C. Cherry, who sits on the board of the South African Property Owners Association, says: "Residents want to be involved in the process from the start and be consulted.

"There's a saying that 'land is the currency of Africa,' " he adds, "and people who have fought hard to get it back from colonial times are loathe to give it up."

One of Pella's oldest residents, farmer Piet Eiman, is pleased by Desert Star's decision.

"Not even a handful will I sell to them," he says, holding pieces of soil in his hands. "We are part of the land, it can support you from a baby, to a young child, to a man. It is part of us."