Film crews have been making the journey over the Atlas mountains from Marakech to Ouarzazat for over 100 years. Louis Lumière’s Le Chevalier Marocain was shot here in 1897 and films have been made continuously in this and other parts of Morocco ever since, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Man who Knew Too Much (1956).
Atlas Film studios opened in Ouarzazate in 1983, the desert location and the relative political stability of Morocco making it a popular location for foreign films, which have brought with them a steady stream of dollars and more recently euros.
The desert backdrop is integral to many different genres of film – such as science fiction (Star Wars), films featuring Romans (Gladiator), Zombies (The Mummy), Egyptians (Mission Cleopatra), the Holy Land (Kingdom of Heaven) and so on, as well as accommodating an insatiable American appetite for gory re-tellings of the old and new testament.
My cousin Karen is working on one of these for the History Channel and it turns out that we should arrive just in time for ‘Crucifiction Weekend’. While recce-ing possible locations for this scene a few weeks earlier, she and Khalil, the Moroccan prop master, had stood on a hilltop and watched another crucifixion, by a different production company in progress on another hilltop just a mile away. In this part of the world, Bible story productions are almost back to back. Responsible for all the non-built parts of the set, Karen is an experienced Set Decorator. She once sourced three different grades of sick for Nicole Kidman.
Do muslims know about Noah’s Ark? she wonders out loud
Well, it’s in the Koran, says Khalil – so, yes
The sets for these films are often co-financed by the production company and the Studios, who are able to continue renting them out long after the production has finished. Consequently, sets are littered throughout the desert over a huge area, almost always with the spectacular Atlas mountains in the background. Coming across these ephemeral monuments being re-absorbed by the desert cannot help but provoke questions about the historical veracity which supposedly attaches to these projects.
Across the ocean on another continent far, far away, many people hungrily assimilate a tangled mass of religious and patriotic themes from a huge range of box sets, confident in the knowledge that it forms a significant part of their historical past.
When we arrive at the ramshackle construction most often used as Jerusalem, (there are other, quite different sets also used as Jerusalem) we see our own crucifiction is getting underway. The cross is almost up, surrounded by silhouettes of the 20 strong crew which briefly recall the flag raising sculpture of Iwo Jima, but there is a problem. The Cross is not securely anchored and cannot bear the weight of an actor without wobbling. In short, the crucifiction has run into a health and safety problem and words are being exchanged between Construction and the Art Department.
Back at the studio there is a blockade in front of the gates by Berbers who are complaining about the unfair distribution of work between locals and imported crews.
There are also difficulties finding a fig tree high enough and strong enough to hang Judas from. The English Art Department are wondering whether it is really necessary to see Judas being hung but the american producer reveals a side of his character he has previously been keeping to himself:
We must see Judas die!
Taking in the expressions of the Brits and others around him he feels he may not have made himself clear. So he adds;
People want to see Judas dead – he has to die!
OK, fine says the assistant director, slightly disorientated by this sudden outburst of fundamentalism.
There are also some issues concerning the Garden of Eden. A packing crate has to be prepared and dug into the site so that Adam can appear as if ‘being born out of the earth’. Eve is being flown in from Italy. It hasn’t been possible to find a suitable local extra at short notice who is willing to appear naked in a film featuring such a compelling blend of Christianity and righteous gratification.
The art director thinks that the apple at the centre of the Old Testament story was probably for the benefit of Northern European readers, and in reality it was more likely to have been a fig.
They are no figs available in Morocco yet someone says
what about apricots? – or peaches?
…hmm, get all of them and we’ll decide on the day
The stylist gets on a unit mobile to Harrods Food Hall. She knows the number by heart
Have you got any figs…? Egyptian is fine – we’ll need 5 kilos… someone will pick them up on Thursday
Due to restrictions on importing fruit, it is decided to put half in hand luggage and half into the hold. The ones in the hand luggage get through. Miraculously, ripe figs are suddenly discovered in Morocco
We could make it look as if blood is coming out of the fig when he bites into it –
the producer suggests enthusiastically the director says :
OK. Lets come back to that one later…