Way back in 1962, British director David Lean choose the dusty town of Ouarzazate and its surrounding area to film his epic movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Lean recognised the potential of the area as a unique and versatile film location and inadvertently started the small dusty towns long love affair with Hollywood.
Ouarzazate and the smaller UNESCO World Heritage site of Ait Bennadau, just 30km up the road, are the ‘go to’ locations for directors who need an authentic looking Roman or Biblical town, a set for a Gulf War epic or even a barren sci-fi landscape.
It wasn’t until 1983, when Moroccan entrepreneur Mohamed Belghmi recognised the need for a permanent studio to be built. The Atlas Studio opened its doors on the outskirts of Ouarzazate, it is the largest studio in the world in terms of acreage.
Alexander the Great, Babel, The Way Back, The Passion, The Mummy, The Living Daylights, Kundun, Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra, The Jewel in the Nile, The Hills Have Eyes II, Sex and the City II, Time Bandits, Prince of Persia, Jesus of Nazareth, and a host of Ridley Scott films including Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies have all been filmed in the area.
Unfortunately the onslaught of CGI has left the movie industry in Ouarzazate reeling a little. The studios, despite being neglected by Hollywood, are still a popular tourist destination, in part because the 322,000 square feet of desert they occupy are littered with decaying movie sets. On the day we visited we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
The last major movie to be filmed at the Atlas Film Studio was 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, now the gargantuan scaffold, plywood, fibreglass and plaster set is weathering slowly in the middle of a great expanse of desert. The epic Egyption set from Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra isn't holding out much better either!
For now the studio waits patiently for the next location scout to arrive whilst hoards of tourists bumble around a health and safety inspectors nightmare.
Sadly celebrity spotting in Ouarzazate is likely to be a thing of the past, like a VHS tape or ice cream intervals at the cinema!