February 23, 2016
Descending from the Atlas Mountains on the road towards Ouarzazate from Marrakesh, the change of scenery is drastic: leaving behind the rugged but verdant northwestern slopes of this impressive mountain range, travelers immediately understand that they have crossed into the Desert. Between the great mountains and the great sandy Ergs, which lie further south near the border with Algeria, a traveler enters the rough stony solitude that the Berbers call the Reg. The vastness and nakedness of this scenery conjures up memories of epic adventures: from modern tales of explorers finding their way in this hard wilderness, to the adventures of astronauts stranded on a desert planet, to the vicissitudes of ancient Egyptian empires; this last fantasy in particular is strongly reinforced by the colossal Egyptian statues found by the side of the road.
These aren’t hallucinations, however, but what’s left from previous productions at one of North Africa’s most prolific filming studios: CLA Studios Cinematographiques de Ouarzazate. In fact, chances are that the reason this landscape may feel familiar to many people is because, in a way, they have already visited these places countless times on movie and TV screens. A quick search on IMDB reveals that most movies that require a desert or “Middle Eastern” scenery are actually shot in Morocco. As an example, the historical village of Ait Benhaddou has been featured in such big and small screen blockbusters as: Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Alexander, and Game of Thrones to name just a few.
The reason for this silver screen popularity is not have only the impressive vistas. In fact, last December the government approved a 20% cash rebate for foreign shoots, in a move that seeks to attract further investments from an industry that brought $110 million dollars in 2014. If Morocco can secure its place as North Africa’s premier shooting location by incentivizing investments while continuing to offer competitive technical expertise and a safe environment (an ever rarer asset across the region), it could very well position itself to become the Hollywood of the Middle East. For a small economy like Morocco’s this would be an enormous boon, not only providing foreign cash and skilled employment to its struggling youth, but also setting the foundation for an autonomous film industry.
The Marrakech International Film Festival plays an important role here. In its sixteenth year, this one-time small cultural event has grown, thanks to government efforts, to become one of the most important film award shows in Africa, attracting international stars such as Martin Scorsese, David Cameron, and Bill Murray, who recently encouraged Americans to visit the Kingdom, jokingly describing it, as “entry level Africa”. This exposure invites international attention and also breeds local talents. Morocco now has a young but substantial legacy of independent and talented movie directors, writers, actors, and producers unafraid of tackling difficult modern topics such as inter-ethnic relations or women’s rights. The benefits of having independent and socially engaged artists reinforce the movement for social reform already underway in the North African country. As a case in point, the 2014 hit “Behind Closed Doors” by Mohammed Ahed Bensouda, which dealt with the harassment of women in the workplace, helped spark a national debate that led to legislation addressing the issue.
Despite being the only film industry in the Middle East and North Africa region to have such support from the government in terms of promotion and fiscal subsidies, Moroccan filmmakers face a very basic distribution problem at home: there are only 31 movie theaters in the whole country. This shortage pushes potential consumers towards internet piracy, which further aggravates the profitability problem of the filmmaking sector. Megarama, the only company to have multiplexes in Morocco, has announced that it will open two more this year, increasing the number of screens in the country to 71. As more Moroccans flock to movie theaters, we should expect Moroccan cinema to grow and become a staple of the international scene.
The world has unwittingly discovered Morocco in movies for decades; the time is coming when Moroccans will discover themselves on their own silver screens.