Morocco a magnet for film producers

Friday 08/05/2015
Temple of Jerusalem gate on set of TV series A.D. in city of Ouarzazate

OUARZAZATE - “Quiet!” The cry rings out in English, French and Arabic across the cobble­stoned streets of Jerusalem, as filming begins for a scene in the series A.D. The Bible Continues.
But while the arched doorways, balconies and furnishings all say Roman-era Palestine, the real-life setting is southern Morocco.
Viewers in the United States and elsewhere in the world may not know it but they have seen a lot of Morocco in the past year. It has served as the Baghdad of American Sniper, the Tehran seen in TV series Homeland, the Mali of American Odyssey and the Egypt that will appear in the mini-series King Tut.
Morocco has also portrayed Soma­lia numerous times, including in the 2001 film Blackhawk Down and more recently in Captain Philips. And it will be Saudi Arabia in this year’s Hologram for a King, also starring Tom Hanks.
It has been a banner year for Mo­rocco’s status as a gigantic film-set -- with $120 million spent by foreign film productions in the country in 2014, more than in the five previous years put together.
The North African kingdom is rid­ing high on its reputation for stabil­ity and exotic locales but industry officials say that Morocco needs to do more — and offer more incen­tives — to realise its potential as a filming destination. It is contending with increasingly stiff competition from South Africa and other coun­tries that offer deep tax rebates.
For Morocco’s film industry, the future depends on the right pack­age of sweeteners to persuade stu­dios to do more than just film exte­riors in the North African country, but also use local facilities. The ultimate goal is to get Hollywood to film entire movies in Morocco, said Sarim Fassi-Fihri, head of the Moroccan Cinematographic Centre, which oversees the industry. “The day tax incentives come to Moroc­co, the whole industry will move here,” he said, cutting a cinematic figure himself, sporting a fedora and puffing on a cigar.
“If we make $120 million today, with tax incen­tives we could go up to $200 (mil­lion)-$250 million.”
He pulled out a sheaf of public­ity brochures from competitors in Turkey, Colombia, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Ireland, even the Ca­nadian province of Manitoba, with promised tax rebates of 20-40% plastered across the covers to entice film companies.
Ever since 1962, when David Lean filmed scenes from Lawrence of Arabia in Morocco, film compa­nies have been using its deserts, mountains and cities as stand-ins for exotic locations. At the vast Atlas Studios complex in Ouarzaz­ate — Morocco’s desert Hollywood perched between the High Atlas and the Sahara — there are sets from dozens of movies from the past dec­ades.
Here, it’s possible to ride the camel used by Nicole Kidman in the upcoming Queen of the Desert past the pharaonic sets from 2002 French film Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra to the fortifications Rid­ley Scott built to recreate medieval Jerusalem for the 2005 crusader film Kingdom of Heaven.
Morocco has fallen in and out of fashion as a movie set over the dec­ades. One mainstay has been bibli­cal films and that business is boom­ing now with the bible-craze taking off in the United States. At one point over the winter, there were three actors playing Jesus in different productions staying at the main ho­tel in Ouarzazate.
The new boom comes off some lean years, beginning with the 2008 global financial crisis and exac­erbated by the 2011 “Arab spring” unrest that led insurers to pull film companies out of the Middle East. But in the case of Morocco, they came back. Morocco stands out for being blessed with the people and landscapes needed to satisfy re­newed interest in the Middle East, while having none of the agitation common elsewhere.
“The ‘Arab spring’ did help us, actually, when everyone was more worried to come to Tunisia and eve­rywhere else, they were coming to Morocco because it was a lot safer,” said Khadija Alami, head of one of Morocco’s several local production companies that partner with inter­national film-makers.
Alami first worked on the 1985 Chevy Case comedy Spies like Us, soon followed by Ishtar, before founding her own production com­pany in 1998. It organises crews, permissions and filming locations for shoots.
The industry has also been boosted by official support. While the state has yet to approve tax re­bates, it does make it easy to work in Morocco and is happy to lend the services of the Moroccan army for a reasonable fee.
Aside from the helicopters, the military equipment used in Black­hawk Down largely came from the Moroccan army. Soldiers also of­ten play extras when huge crowd scenes are called for. The govern­ment even allowed the main high­way between Marrakech and the seaside town of Agadir to be closed for three weeks last year for Mis­sion: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Local media later credited the clo­sure for a drug bust when a car full of cocaine ran foul of a police checkpoint at the detour.
“There is a big boom here because of its nature as the most liberal of the Muslim countries,” said Eamon Patrick, a line producer for A.D.
“So any filming that uses a con­temporary Middle East setting, they do a lot of it here,” Patrick said.
(The Associated Press)