Hollywood in africa: Ouarzazate’s cinematic marvels and desert dreams

Hollywood in Africa: Ouarzazate's Cinematic Marvels and Desert Dreams


Ouarzazate: Long films depict Hollywood’s imagination of faraway lands. From memorable epics like Lawrence of Arabia to blockbusters like Star Wars, countless movies have transported audiences across the globe through the magic of cinema. However, few realize that some blockbuster films weren’t just filmed on distant soundstages — entire towns were constructed from scratch to bring directors’ visions to life.

This is precisely what happened in the desert town of Ouarzazate, Morocco. Ouarzazate now hosts a bustling film industry in the northern portion of the Sahara, thanks to its stunning desert backdrops. Over the decades, movie studios have flocked here to capture the iconic vistas seen in numerous films. The landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see provided a perfect blank canvas for directors’ imaginations.

In this blog post, I hope to give you a glimpse into Ouarzazate’s cinematic history and rise to fame. We’ll explore how Hollywood discovered this remote desert outpost and transformed it into one of the top film destinations in the world. I’ll share some iconic movies filmed within the town’s borders and reveal the film sets that still exist today. By the end, I hope to convey Ouarzazate’s magnetic pull as both a filming location and tourism destination built on dreams of the silver screen. So, without further ado, let’s dive into Hollywood in Africa!

Ouarzazate: How It All Began

The story of Ouarzazate’s cinematic fame began in the 1960s when director David Lean scouted locations for his blockbuster film Lawrence of Arabia. He sought the cinematic equivalent of the vast, arid landscapes T.E. Lawrence would have trekked through during his real-life exploits. Lean found precisely what he was looking for among Morocco’s Saharan vistas.

Specific scenes were shot near Ouarzazate, including Lawrence’s famous match-lighting scene, which has become one of the most iconic in cinema history. The sheer scale and emptiness of the desert around Ouarzazate were ideally suited to Lean’s aims. It allowed him to transport viewers back to the epic events of Arabia’s past.

Though only snippets were filmed directly in Ouarzazate, Lean’s masterpiece was a watershed moment. It put Morocco’s deserts on the map for filmmakers seeking exotic foreign backdrops. Word began to spread of the breathtaking vistas available just a short flight from Europe. Before long, other directors were flocking to Morocco with their movie dreams.

The Man Who Would Be King was one film that would cement Ouarzazate’s reputation. Directed by John Huston in 1975, it starred Sean Connery and Michael Caine. This time, the majority was shot right within city limits. Huston decided Ouarzazate’s palette of red sandstone cliffs and arid plains was the ideal double for colonial-era Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier.

The production injected new life into the struggling town. Local laborers and artisans were hired to help construct sets and source props and costumes. Donkeys and camels were wrangled from Berber nomads for transport and extras. Ouarzazate boomed, giving residents a glimpse of filmmaking’s economic potential. Directors returning in future years continue bolstering the community.

Ouarzazate: Creating Cinema’s Hollywood in Africa

In the 1970s and 80s, Ouarzazate firmly cemented its status as “Hollywood of the Sahara” as major blockbusters flocked to film. It was during this era that its unique film infrastructure began taking shape. More permanent sets and facilities were constructed to entice production with the hits coming. This ensured Ouarzazate could readily reshape itself for any director’s vision on demand.

One early construction was the Atlas Film Studios, founded in 1983. It includes several backlot sets permanently built to double for different periods and locations. These have since been used in over 100 productions, changing appearances from scene to scene. The famous mini-Hollywood town of Ait Ben Haddou was also restored for filming, with its Kasbahs and medina squares appearing in Gladiator and The Mummy, among others.

French director Roger Hanin arrived in 1984 to begin shooting The Four Feathers, kicking off a new chapter. He advocated for upgraded facilities to lure more European productions. New soundstages, workshops, and a film school were built in response. This attracted Golden Age figures like Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott to film Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven within Ouarzazate’s borders in the 2000s.

By the 1990s, the landscape surrounding Ouarzazate was dotted with numerous additional film sets. Among the most iconic were the Star Wars sets, which you’ll learn more about later. American producers were thoroughly charmed by Ouarzazate’s unique blend of scenery and service industry. Studio executives lauded Morocco’s political stability and incentives that made filming affordable compared to Hollywood.

These factors snowballed Ouarzazate’s standing as the epicenter of African film production. It now boasts schools, hotels, and skilled crews primed to assist studios of all sizes. The town is no stranger to welcoming A-listers, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Clint Eastwood. Their presence further inspires the next generation of craftspeople and executives. Today, Ouarzazate and Moroccan cinema are synonymous.

Hollywood in Africa: Ouarzazate's Cinematic Marvels and Desert Dreams
Hollywood in Africa: Ouarzazate’s Cinematic Marvels and Desert Dreams

Ouarzazate: Iconic Films That Made Ouarzazate Famous

At this point, hopefully, you have a firm grasp of how Ouarzazate attracted Hollywood and grew into a globally recognized filming powerhouse. , I want to highlight some blockbusters that cemented their place in cinematic history. Many consider these works to be among the greatest films of all time. Let’s explore how they came to be shot within Ouarzazate’s inhospitable yet breathtaking borders.

Gladiator (2000) – Directed by Ridley Scott, this Best Picture winner starring Russell Crowe shot establishes scenes, battle sequences, and Maximus’s desert travels close to Ouarzazate. Its impressive backlot “Rome” set became a star attraction.

The Mummy (1999) – The first film that kickstarted the franchise chose Ouarzazate for its eerie Egyptian locales. The unique rock formations outside town served as backdrops for Imhotep’s resurrection.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – As mentioned earlier, David Lean filmed iconic scenes like Lawrence lighting matches and crossing the Nefud desert near Ouarzazate en route to the Hejaz railway. The film took home 7 Oscars, including Best Picture.

Game of Thrones (2011-2019) – Numerous Season 1 scenes were captured around Ouarzazate, including Daenerys’ journey through the Red Waste. The Atlas Studios doubling as Qarth also became a must-see for fans.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – John Huston’s adventure epic starring Michael Caine shot extensively in Ouarzazate, marking a turning point as one of the first major productions to film within city limits.

Star Wars (1977) – George Lucas chose a little-known location called “Star Wars Canyon” outside Ouarzazate for the Tatooine scenes, cementing its status as a premiere filming hub.

Those are just a few blockbuster titles that helped the “Hollywood of the Desert” earn its name. The allure of its landscapes has proven timeless for realizing visions of foreign worlds through cinema. Ouarzazate’s popularity shows no signs of waning as more producers discover its magic each year.

Ouarzazate: Permanent Film Setsfrozen in Time

Various permanent film sets still stand today across Ouarzazate’s region – living relics from cinema’s golden age. Abandoned yet fully intact, they’ve become attractions in their own right. Visitors can roam set streets and experience the magic of movies by seeing where some of the most iconic scenes were captured. Now, I’ll briefly overview some must-see sets you’ll only find here in Morocco.

Star Wars Set – “Star Wars Canyon” holds the rocks where young Luke Skywalker once gazed at twin suns. Noticeable rigs and marks remain from where flying spacecraft were superimposed. Scenes from A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and Rogue One were all shot here.

Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah – This 11th-century fortified city across three peaks has appeared in films like Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile, Lawrence of Arabia, and more. Walk the magical alleyways and ramparts.

Atlas Film Studios – On any given day, a thriving backlot may have an entire Moroccan medina among English manor homes. Take a guided tour to compare facades and spot where Daniel Craig once rode.

Kasbah of Tighmert – Used as Yoda’s home in The Attack of the Clones, this restored 15th-century compound has hosted productions from Game of Thrones to The Mummy. Admire the grand architecture and secret smugglers’ dens.


FAQ 1: Is Ouarzazate the “Hollywood of Africa”?

The nickname “Hollywood of Africa” has stuck for Ouarzazate, given its prominence in hosting major international productions. While it may not have quite the same infrastructure level as accurate Hollywood locations, Ouarzazate has established itself as the epicenter for filming across the entire African continent.

Its strategic location, diverse landscapes, and film-friendly policies have attracted top directors for decades. With a proven track record for exotic locales from Egypt to the frontier, Ouarzazate embodies the magic of movies that the name “Hollywood” represents.

FAQ 2: What kind of scenery can be found around Ouarzazate?

The fantastic range of arid vistas is what draws directors to Ouarzazate time and again. Every project finds its dream location, from towering red sandstone cliffs and canyons perfect for Westerns to vast golden desert plains stretching as far as the eye can see. Some key highlights include the mountain desert of Ameln Valley used in Gladiator, the purple clay dunes of Khamlia, rocky outcrops serving as Tatooine in Star Wars, and the verdant Palmeraie oasis providing lush contrasts. With Morocco’s diversity of scenery, film crews always discover new gems ready to be transformed on screen.

FAQ 3: What film infrastructure exists to support productions?

Ouarzazate has developed world-class facilities to support Hollywood-scale shoots. Permanent backlots like Atlas Studios offer pre-built facades for any period or place. Local artisans can quickly transform landscapes with set decorations. Modern soundstages, workshops, and a respected film school in Ouarzazate train the next generation.

Top hotels, equipment rental houses, and an airport hub also make large productions turnkey. Experienced fixed-term crews provide all the gaffers, grips, and talent needed. This plug-and-play service infrastructure is a core reason prominent directors keep returning.

FAQ 4: What kind of films is Ouarzazate best suited for?

Thanks to the variety of desert backdrops, Ouarzazate lends itself to various genres. Historical epics capturing sweeping vistas like Gladiator find their perfect canvas. The rocky outcrops serve well for Westerns. Distinctive features like towering sandstone cliffs or boulder-strewn valleys easily double for foreign planets in sci-fi productions. With its abundant natural light, Ouarzazate is also ideal for capturing dramatic visuals, whether filming Biblical tales or period dramas. Horror directors have also taken advantage of its eerie natural potential. In short, few locations offer such diverse, cinematic scenery for imaginative storytelling across formats.

FAQ 5: How accessible is Ouarzazate for tourists?

It’s become remarkably tourist-friendly, given its remote Saharan location. An international airport places it within a few hours of major European cities. Regular buses connect smaller towns and cities nearby. Most film sets like Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah are situated just outside city limits along well-marked routes.

Guided tours explain filming lore at sets and studios. Hotels, from budget to luxury, have increased. With English widely spoken, independent travelers can easily explore the region’s cinematic charms and tranquil desert pace of life. Many visitors combine a film pilgrimage in Ouarzazate with tours of the imperial cities and the Atlas Mountains further north.

FAQ 6: How has filmmaking impacted the local community?

Moviemaking has been nothing short of transformative for Ouarzazate. It diversified the economic base beyond farming and brought steady jobs during shoots. Local artisans found work constructing sets or as extras. Young people now train in film-related skills at schools in positions like gaffers, customers, and animation. The tourism industry sprouted tour companies, hotels, and souvenir shops catering to global visitors. Ouarzazate is now a model for how locations worldwide can sustainably develop film-tourism circuits, preserving culture and traditions. Most residents are proud their home has a hand in cinematic history and shown the world magnificent Moroccan landscapes from Star Wars to Gladiator.


From its nomadic roots to its present-day status as a global film powerhouse, the desert town of Ouarzazate has come a long way. What began as a chance location for a few memorable scenes has become a cinematic marvel in its own right. This once-isolated settlement transformed into the beating heart of African moviemaking through sheer will and natural magic.

Walking its streets today amid reminders of Spielberg and Lucas, it’s clear Ouarzazate has a unique role in vibrating Hollywood fantasies to life. While film studios may come and go, the magic of movies remains forever etched into its landscapes. For any cinema lovers, visiting Morocco’s “Hollywood in the Desert” offers a window into epic dreams of the silver screen.