Visiting Morocco’s Hollywood
Ouarzazate is home to “Ouallywood”, Morocco’s so called equivalent to Hollywood, and it has become a go to destination for film productions from around the globe. In fact, many famous movies have been shot in and around the city’s film studios and locations, thanks to the fantastic weather and dry conditions. Ait Benhaddou is probably the best known location and we had visited the ancient fortress the previous day.
Exploring a Film Studio
Having worked in films myself both before and after I had Jerome for a few years I was curious to explore one of the film studios in Ouarzazate. There are guided tours available but having approached our hotel manager for recommendations he suggested for us to visit a secret abandoned film set not far from the hotel. The proposition of visiting a forsaken film studio that usually is off limits for tourists sounded like our ideal kind of place to explore.
Wandering through the Moon Like Landscape
With instructions on how to get to the abandoned film set we started our adventure by foot setting off across the stony desert from the hotel. Heading due south we wandered across the moon like landscape, meandering through the stone desert with the sun blazing down on us. The boys had been told to look out for colourful rocks and stones and were hoping that luck would be on their side and they would discover a geode, hidden among the millions of stones. Every time they spotted a round knobbly, cauliflower like rock they would pick it up and try to smash it apart. Luck was definitely not on their side that morning and instead we often found many other split rocks on the earth, so perhaps we had not been the only ones with this idea in mind.
Castle in the Distance
The terrain undulated raising slowly upwards towards some hills in the distance. The ground was just stones after stones after stones, but all varying in hue, browns mixing with reds, blacks and greys. Coming over a small rise we could see what looked like a castle shimmering in the heat in the distance, all lone in the middle of the rocky landscape with just a track approaching it.
A Giant Rusty Boulder
As we approached this forsaken film set, Jerome walked up to a giant metal sphere near the track. We had noticed this abandoned object from far away sitting someway in front of the deteriorating building complex. The giant rusty boulder turned out to be hollow with a large opening on one side. Speculating about its purpose we came to the conclusion that it might have been a giant siege cannonball that was left behind after being part of one of the movies being shot in the studio, but perhaps it was something els. Jerome would have preferred it to be part of a spacecraft from a science fiction film instead…
Meeting our Guide
A person had been lingering at the entrance to the old studio sets during our inspection of the giant boulder. We approached him and told him that our hotel manager had suggested a visit, and when we told him his name and where we were from he seemed keen to let us into the complex and guide us around. Getting by on basic French from both sides he first asked us about ourselves and then explained facts about the abandoned film sets.
Entering the Film Set
Standing inside the vast courtyard in the first set we felt like being transported to ancient Greece, Rome or Egypt. The columns surrounding us could have easily been part of the Panthenon, although up on closer look they turned out be no more than painted fiberglass or plasterboard. The roof had already fallen in places, freeing the wooden framework towards the deep, blue sky. An altar took up the centre of the square, and was covered in fading paint splatter meant to decipher blood from gruesome battles fought by gladiators or religious groups. In fact most of the films recorded on site were biblical and historical dramas, like Jesus of Nazareth, Cleopatra and Gladiator featuring actors like Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, our guide explained in his basic french.
Jerome was fascinated to experience a film studio up close and discover how fake and unreal the props and sets are upon close up inspection. It was great for giving him an insight and different perspective to films overall and will most likely influence his approach to watching movies in the future. It is incredible to think that the outsides look so real but behind the painted facades are just struts of wood, pieces of plastic and shorn up structures.
Jesus and his Apostles
Leaving the expansive courtyard behind we stumbled down some steps, ducked under a collapsing roof and stepped into a room used for a scene with Jesus and his twelve apostles. The group of wooden chairs, arranged in a half circle with Jesus seated amidst might have looked impressive on television or even the big cinema screen, up close it was clearly rather drab and cheap. Although everyone ever visiting a film studio must surely admit that a lot of money is being spent and wasted to re-create rooms, buildings or even entire streets and landscapes.
Ouarzazate as a Film Location
The films I was involved in before had always used existing structures and only changed the interior with borrowed props, this is clearly difficult or impossible for large scale historical places. Ouarzazate has found its purpose achieving large scale sets for certain film genres, with endless stretches of land on offer at low price, including the occasional permissions to shoot in ancient, existing buildings, like the famous fort at Ait Benhaddou and the Kasbah near Agdz.
Upon leaving the abode of the disciples, we wandered into another huge courtyard. Our guide explained that the space contained a well, market stalls and huts for filming general everyday village scenes. To one side we were led into a room, which immediately filled me with wonder – it was a tiled roman bath with marble columns and intricate stucco, a balcony framed the impressive Moroccan landscape beyond. The tiles turned out to be no more than painted cartons and paper and the columns were painted to fool the viewers it was expensive Italian marble. Mould had already taken hold of the columns and walls and the domed ceiling had caved in but it was still easy to imagine the actors lounging in the baths on set.
Another Ouallywood Tour
We were sad to find that we had soon seen the entire building but were glad to have found this secret abandoned film set. Anyone interested in visiting a less adventurous (and perhaps less dangerous!?) movie studio can head to Atlas Studios for a Ouallywood tour, just outside Ouarzazate. The tour even includes a guide dressed in a period costume.
Leaving the Studio
Our unofficial guide received a generous tip for taking his time although it most likely made his day more interesting than just playing security guard for a forsaken building. Leaving the abandoned film studio behind we headed along the gravelled tracks back northwards toward the nearest village seeking an interesting spot for lunch. Read about discovering a hidden restaurant in an ancient Kasbah in my next post.
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