Where is “African Hollywood” and Why do the world’s biggest movie studios want to go there?


Even those who have never heard of “African Hollywood” will recognize these landscapes, simply because many classic films and modern blockbusters were shot in Ouarzazate. “Gladiator,” “Alexander,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the Asterix and Obelix and Bond movies, “Game of Thrones” – the list could go on and on. If the film is conceived on the “Eastern” theme, if it is supposed to chase against the backdrop of sand dunes, if the plot involves antiquity, with a high probability this movie will be filmed in Morocco Ouarzazate.

How a small town on the caravan route fell in love with filmmakers

Louis Lumière himself first discovered the town when he filmed The Moroccan Shepherd in 1897. And in the XX century Ouarzazate every now and then came film crews headed by famous directors. Orson Welles in 1951 shot his “Othello” here, and Alfred Hitchcock in 1956 – the film “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. You can also see the local scenery while watching “Lawrence of Arabia” directed by David Lean. If the story was set in the East, the likelihood of shooting in Ouarzazate, Morocco, was very high, even if you had to fly in from the other side of the earth to do it.  It is highly recommended to do Tour 2 dias desde Ouarzazate al Desierto Merzouga.

This town is located to the south of the Atlas Mountains, with the Draa River flowing nearby. The word “Ouarzazate” comes from the Berber word for “no noise”, and indeed, the place itself is quite quiet and even a bit boring. Is that the famous Moroccan bazaar, which unfolds in this town too, brings life into the quiet stream of Ouarzazate life. And the region has long been famous for its carpets with geometric patterns of red on a black background.

The city once served as a crossing point for trade caravans traveling to Europe. With the arrival of the French colonizers, the function of the town changed, and it now houses the barracks of the Foreign Legion and a military airfield. In addition, Ouarzazate attracted more and more tourists and filmmakers.

The views of Ouarzazate and its streets, the mountain slopes, the sand dunes, the numerous oases, all served as perfect backdrops for the action, which was set somewhere in the east or in a southern country. The Moroccan city welcomed foreign film crews. The expressive, distinctive Ouarzazate, preserving its old-time features, was the safe east that allowed us to create without regard to heightened security measures or prohibitive budgets.

Ouarzazate Film Studio

In 1983, the Atlas Film Studio opened in Ouarzazate and became one of the largest film studios in the world. More and more people were getting involved in filmmaking. There was always work to be done on costumes and decorations, props had to be procured and prepared, and most importantly, there was always the opportunity to participate in crowd scenes.

Ouarzazate was gradually turning into a city with a developed infrastructure and comfortable organization of filming, a city where there are no bureaucratic delays, and the authorities facilitate the work of filmmakers and quickly issue the necessary permits.

Pavilions and even entire neighborhoods were built for filming. “Medieval Jerusalem,” created for the film “Kingdom of Heaven,” directed by Ridley Scott, after the end of filming was not dismantled. Like many other sets in Ouarzate, it is still in use for the filming of television series and shows. And tourists have access to some of the pavilions of the local Dream Factory exhibits – you can do it by visiting the Film Museum.

“Wallywood,” as the cinematic Ouarzazate is sometimes called, was also involved in the filming of one of the most popular television series, Game of Thrones. Yunkai, the city that Daenerys liberates, is nothing less than an ancient fortress, or xar, called Ait-Ben-Haddou. It is a city of earthen buildings, a unique monument of Berber culture. It is located thirty kilometers from Ouarzazate. It was built about a thousand years ago to guard the caravan road from Marrakech to Timbuktu.

Films in which you can see the sights of Morocco

Ain Ben-Haddou is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress city has been the setting for numerous films, one of them being Gladiator, which won five Oscars, including a Best Picture nomination. In addition, Xar can be seen in the films “Jesus of Nazareth”, “The Pearl of the Nile”, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, “Kundun”, “The Mummy”, “Alexander” – the list is far from complete.

Interestingly, one of the films that seemed destined to be shot in Ouarzazate had nothing to do with the city. It was Casablanca. It was not filmed in Morocco at all, where the Vichy regime reigned in 1942.

In the 2000s, Moroccan Hollywood was experiencing a lull due to the economic crisis and the turbulent situation in the Arab world. After 2010 things picked up, in Ouarzate filmed a lot. What awaits the capital of the African film industry next is an open question. Perhaps the real set will finally surrender before the development of computer technology, but maybe in Morocco will still come for on location shooting to “catch” the southern light and atmosphere of the old East.


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