A Travelers Guide to Making Movies in Morocco

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

This is a classic movie quote from the movie Casablanca and one of the most known movie quotes of all time. Though Casablanca is not my favorite movie and that is not my favorite movie quote, this post will be about making movies in Morocco so let’s pretend it is.

On my recent travels to Morocco, I discovered that the filmmaking business is big business in this North African country. Aside from the landscapes of Morocco that can and have been used to mimic any other country in the world, there are also seven movie studios operating. The list of movies that were shot entirely or at least partially here is quite impressive. A quick search of those movies yields these results: Lawrence of Arabia, The Man Who Would Be King, The Mummy, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, and Babel. I had the pleasure to visit one of the most filmed locations in the country, the village Ait-Ben-Haddou. I immediately understood why filmmakers have been making movies in Morocco for so long and why they keep coming back.

The first film ever made was a stop motion movie called The Horse In Motion, it was created by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878.  This moving picture answered a commonly debated question at the time: When a horse trots, do all four hooves leave the ground simultaneously? The answer is yes. Moving pictures took off, and it was only nine years later when the first film project started in Morocco. The Lumiere brothers, well-known pioneers of filmmaking, began filming Le Chevrier Marocain (The Moroccan Goatherd). The project was successful, and the first screening was held at The Royal Palace of Fez the same year. That placed Morocco on the map of the filmmaking world. Taking into consideration the fact that Morocco offers great sceneries, low costs, and loose laws about filmmaking, it is easy to see why Hollywood kept coming back. By the mid-twentieth century, directors like Orson Welles (Othello) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much) made their movies here.  Still, Morocco did not just wait for the foreign film industry to come and make movies. In 1944 the Moroccan Cinematographic Center, the nation’s film regulatory body was founded. And in 1958 Mohammed Ousfour filmed the first Moroccan movie Le fils maudit (The Damned Son).

The area that has been portrayed again and again in movies is the village Ait-Ben-Haddou in the Ouarzazate Province of south-central Morocco. A mineral rich river divides the village into two areas. Ksar represents the traditional half of the village and has only four families living there at the moment. The other side of Ait-Ben-Haddou is more modern and full of numerous shops, restaurants, and “Riads” (traditional Moroccan guesthouses). Nowadays the primary sources of income for the village are tourism and filmmaking, but in the past, Ksar was an important trading post on a caravan route located on the foothills of The Atlas Mountains.

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Ksar is a local name for a type of village (surrounded by a wall for protection) where several families live together. Families live in traditional houses called Kasbahs, which look like little individual castles due to the four towers in each corner of the building. Inside the family homes, Kasbahs, the ground floor is used for agricultural purposes and the upper floors serve as accommodation. Beside Kasbahs, there are also terraced houses (that act as homes for farm workers) and other community buildings such as barns, marketplaces, mosques, etc., that make up a Ksar. The four families still living in the old part of the Ait-Ben-Haddou village today, live as if they were frozen in time. No electricity, no running water or any other modern commodities.

It was this rich history and representation of regional architecture that placed this Ksar of the village Ait-Ben-Haddou on the World Heritage List in 1987. For heritage preservation, once a site is put on the list, it has to remain untouched. The law prohibits filmmakers from leaving any traces of their projects behind. There is not supposed to be any evidence of mummies running around or gladiators fighting in an arena. However, this was not the case before 1987. As a result of that, Ksar has not one, but two entrances. There is the original entrance that leads through the wall surrounding the Ksar. The other “entrance” stands on its own and was used as a prop for the movie Lawrence of Arabia. When filming wrapped in 1962, the filmmakers decided just to leave the prop behind.  Luckily the entrance way blends well with the village, and it is easily mistaken to be part of the original structure.

Landscapes of Morocco may be used to help create illusions in the movies. However, when traveling around this stunning country, you are constantly reminded that the beauty of the Morocco and its people are undeniably real.

A Travelers' Guide




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