Morocco town’s Hollywood connection
More than half of the 50,000 residents of Ouarzazate, a desert town in a valley at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, rely for jobs on the film industry in one form or another.
They get jobs as extras or stuntmen, or for work behind the camera as technicians, sound engineers or set decorators.
Mbarka Jakanbaka has been in so many Hollywood films over the past 20 years that she cannot remember most of them.
She has only seen a couple on the big screen, but does not even know the name of the last one she appeared in, dressed in the elaborate costume of an ancient Egyptian.
“I was in the film for 15 days. It was about religion. My son knows the name,” said Jakanbaka, 46, sitting with legs outstretched on the floor of her dark, cramped living room.
Morocco has long attracted Hollywood and European filmmakers for its varied landscapes, and Ouarzazate is a picture-perfect exotic location.
Films shot in Ouarzazate
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring James Stewart and Doris Day
Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean; starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif
Jesus of Nazareth (1977), directed by Franco Zeffirelli; starring Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft
Jewel of the Nile (1985), directed by Lewis Teague; starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner
The Living Daylights (1987), a James Bond film directed by John Glen; starring Timothy Dalton, Maryam d’Abo
The Last Temptation of Christ» (1988), Martin Scorsese; starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel
The Sheltering Sky (1990), Bernardo Bertolucci; starring Debra Winger, John Malkovich
Kundun (1997), Martin Scorsese; starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong
The Mummy (1999), Stephen Sommers; starring Brendan Fraser
Gladiator (2000), Ridley Scott; starring Russell Crowe
Alexander (2004), Oliver Stone; starring Colin Farrell, Angeline Jolie, Anthony Hopkins
Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (2002), Alain Chabat; starring Gerard Depardieu and Jamel Debbouze
Hidalgo (2004), Joe Johnston; starring Omar Sharif and Viggo Mortensen
Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Ridley Scott; starring Martin Hancock and Michael Sheen
Babel (to be released 2006), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
The Ten Commandments (to be released in the spring of 2006), Robert Dornhelm; starring Omar Sharif, Dougray Scott, Mia Maestro
Jakanbaka; her husband, Mohammed Raoui, 56; their three sons, Azzedine 26, Hicham, 24 and Rachid, 12, as well as their two daughters, Hana and Amal, all have appeared in Western films as extras.
The city’s Kasbah, with its red and brown mud houses and unpaved narrow streets, is home to most of the Ouarzazate extras.
It has also attracted many film-makers as a location for big-budget films, including the 2000 Rules of Engagement and last year’s Kingdom of Heaven.
But when there is no shooting, the inhabitants of the Kasbah carry on living in their homes of small narrow rooms and corridors.
The town’s only cinema shut down about five years ago because of lack of business.
People in the city are grateful to the foreign film industry, even though pay is as little as $15 a day.
Those with experience get more, $24 a day or as much as $60.
However, inexperienced European and African extras get about $40 a day for films shot in Morocco and that has led to complaints of discrimination by some Ouarzazate residents.
Still, the money is not bad considering that the average salary in Ouarzazate is about $6 a day.
Kingdom of Heaven, a $180 million production, provided eight months of work for 2800 people.
“When the cinema comes to Ouarzazate, we are happy,” said Jakanbaka’s son, Azzedine Raoui, who has appeared in films since he was seven.
“But we are still poor,” he said, as he showed off a stack of photos of himself and other members of his family in various films.
When there is no film work, he said, he deliberately remains unemployed lest he should miss an opportunity if a film comes to town.
During dry spells, Raoui’s mother sells sandwiches in the local market or makes embroidery for sale.
But the money from cinema enables her to buy good food, she said.
Morocco’s desert offers stunning
Film industry officials point to the benefits film-making has brought the town.
“Obviously, the movie industry is what keeps this town alive,” said Robert Halmi Sr, president of Hallmark Entertainment and executive producer of The Ten Commandments, which was partly shot in Ouarzazate.
“It’s very, very expensive for us to do a television movie on this scale,” said Robert Dornhelm, the director of the big-budget four-hour ABC miniseries.
“Of course, we have to come to places where you still can recreate this and have the labour and extras that you can afford,” he said.