The city of Ouarzazate in Morocco is full of surprises, not just because of its dramatic landscape of square mud buildings blending into the red earth. Perched on the edge of the Sahara Desert, the city is nicknamed "the door to the desert" and it really is the doorway to the empty endless sandpit. Heading into the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech to Ouarzazate is commonly known as the "route of a thousand Kasbahs", whereas to my mind it should be named the "movie buff's miles". It is the classic movie tour path for the film aficionado where you will go past the landscapes used as backdrops in numerous blockbuster movies.
It is here that the movie maniacs will find Atlas Film Studio; the world's largest film studio if defined by acreage, as it encompasses the surrounding arid desert and rugged mountainous landscapes. The remnants of numerous film sets such as the airplane from The Jewel of the Nile and the Tibetan monastery used in the movie Kundun, sit baking under the glaring sun. The studios sit just outside the city with perfectly manicured double lane roadways and expensive street lighting leading into Ouarzazate, a city of stark contrasts from the grubby and impoverished to splendid opulence.
Morocco is a living exotic film set of roman ruins and medieval cities, rustic villages and desert moonscapes. It is one of the most sought after filming locations in the world due to its proximity to Europe, its highly developed film infrastructure, super low production costs and the endless sunny weather. Obviously the gritty swirling desert sand getting in the cameras is not of much concern. Most of the filming done in Morocco is centered in the Marrakech to Ouarzazate area, where there is no shortage of willing bodies to play extras on movie sets, as in hordes of slaves or marauding turbaned bandits, when required.
From Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to The Living Daylights (1987), The Mummy (1999) and Gladiator (2000) plus the TV series Game of Thrones, they were all filmed in this vast empty space of endless sand that can mimic the natural environment of many countries or create a fantasyland environment of a different world. Other blockbuster movies such as The Bourne Ultimatum, Inception and Black Hawk Down join the Moroccan movie list.
It isn't just the desert that draws foreign film-makers to this exotic land of spices, bubbling tagines, mint tea and prayer calls from minarets where storks love to nest and frolic on ramparts. The allure is the ancient medinas, the lush isolated palmeries and the vast open expanses where the building of film sets is possible. Once used for filming, the buildings stand abandoned in lonely isolation.
The Man Who Knew Too Much, the spy thriller of Alfred Hitchcock, was filmed in the pulsating heart of Jemaa el Fna of Marrakech with its swarthy snake charmers and storytellers, colourful food stalls and the local hordes draped in hooded djellabas. Mission Impossible 5 starring Tom Cruise took in the Marrakesh Stadium and Hideous Kinky starring Kate Winslet is set in the "Red City" of Marrakesh. Even Sex and the City 2, despite the story being set in Abu Dhabi, was in fact entirely shot in Morocco in the iconic Djemaa El Fna square and the cities of Rabat and Erfoud.
When I was in Morocco I stayed at a sprawling red riad on the long road leading out of the town from Ait Benhaddou - the fortified Kasbah and UNESCO World Heritage Site from the 11th Century - where Gladiator of the Russell Crowe variety was filmed. I was to find out that the Kasbah is now a hangout for the local studs that insist they were extras in the film, all offering to give you a personal tour of the Kasbah, for a price of course. If you are a lone female, beware of the local boys with gap-toothed smarmy grins that want nothing more than to give you a private tour to get you lost amidst the ruins. The cost to be shown your way out is invariably an amateur attempt at seducing you, regardless of your age. They have obviously been hanging around their older counterparts too much.
I was lucky enough to have a private tour - not of the little boy or the swaggering blue turbaned Berber variety - of the Taourirt Kasbah that served as a backdrop in a scene of the movie, Star Wars. This ancient citadel at the foot of the Atlas Mountains has over 300 rooms and mazes of passageways to get lost in. Once the domain of a ruthless despot or an admired warlord and chieftain, depending on whom you are talking to, it is amazing to take in the plethora of richly decorated harem rooms, reception rooms and knee wobbling narrow stairwells and alleyways where spiders build intricate webs that you really don't want to disturb.
Much to my amusement on another day I came across a Bollywood film being produced at a nearby mosque in a dusty backwater village on the road leading to Marrakesh. Apparently Morocco is a favourite country for Bollywood film producers. For the locals, speaking a few words of Hindi gives you almost star status and is a testament to your acting career, however brief or nondescript it may have been.
Unlike the iconic movie "Casablanca", you will not find the ghosts of Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart slinking around the pulsating saffron and cumin infused Casablanca in Morocco, as the movie was entirely filmed in a Hollywood studio 6,000 miles away and wasn't based on the Moroccan city at all.