Lights, camera, Allahu akbar… welcome to Hollywood-on-Mahgreb

For film-makers, Morocco is like California: sunshine, diverse landscapes, great old architecture and available extras

Travel

11 Jun 2016

It was evening when I made the phone call to the talent agency, but I knew people would be at their desks in Los Angeles. As I waited for the call to go through, I idly picked at an orange and looked out from the balcony at La Mamounia on the gardens below. Palm trees framed a view of the pool where a young woman in a black Speedo one-piece cut through the water over and over doing laps. A young man in tennis whites sat on a lounger flipping through one of the trade magazines, a pile of fluffy towels on a table nearby. My companion and I had taken a dip after our own set of tennis that morning. Beyond the pool, a clutch of bungalows and cabanas nestled among the orange and lemon trees on the hotel grounds. From the balcony, it looked remarkably like the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Just as I got through to the agent’s assistant, a piercing cry rang out over the rooftops, rising ever higher in pitch.

‘Hello?’ the assistant at the end of the phone said.

The singing began again: ‘Allahu akbar… Alayhis-Salaam!’ It was the call to prayer in old Marrakech. My companion, listening at the table, went wide-eyed. What on earth, I could see her thinking, would the person on the other end of the line in Hollywood make of this keening religious exclamation?

She needn’t have been concerned. Hollywood agencies and film and TV studios have for decades been fielding phone calls from, and sending production crews to, Morocco. They are accustomed to the imam’s cry.

Morocco shares many of the advantages that first drew filmmakers to California: year-round sunshine, diverse landscapes, great old architecture and abundant available extras. Just recently Morocco and Britain signed a treaty giving each other reciprocal tax subsidies for film and television production. And since the UK and Morocco are in the same time zone, they keep the same business hours.

My fascination with film was kindled in the New York editorial offices of a literary magazine, the Paris Review. My then boss, George Plimpton, recounted over lunch one day an adventure he had had long before — one of his stunts in participatory journalism — when he shipped off to Morocco to play a Bedouin extra on the set of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

He described Lean as a figure in the far distance, a speck at the end of a vast gorge, standing beside a camera and orchestrating the spectacle of a massive Bedouin army on horseback. ‘I’m on screen there somewhere,’ George insisted, ‘though I didn’t get a horse to ride on; mostly I stood around and ululated. Lucky that I was so far out of camera range because beneath those Bedouin robes I was wearing my own brown Bass Weejun loafers.’

For me this was somewhat akin to a child’s realisation that actors didn’t make up the things they said on screen (usually), and it sparked the understanding that feature films were things made not just on a set in Holly-wood but that they could be made by him, you and me (and, nowadays, anyone with a digital camera).

Just before Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia here, Alfred Hitchcock made great use of the hotel on whose balcony I was standing in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky was set in Morocco, and he shot on location, of course. Orson Welles shot Othello on the ramparts of Essaouira and his film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

More recently, The Night Manager began and ended with Marrakech’s Es Saadi hotel standing in for the fictional Hotel Nefertiti in Cairo, Tom Hiddleston’s character’s first place of employment.


Morocco bound: films shot here include: The Sheltering Sky, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Spectre and American Sniper

Technically, however, the film business in Morocco is older than Hollywood’s, since the Lumière Brothers shot Le Cavalier Marocain (The Morrocan Horseman) here in 1893, and today the country produces many films of its own, mostly documentaries and neo-realist fare that pops up in festivals around the world.

The development of Marrakech over the last 15 years into a major tourist destination — a mecca of spas and shopping — has been remarkable, and it has been carefully managed so as not to ruin the character and values of the city. Less noted has been the city’s emergence as a commerce hub, not just for film but also for solar energy and also as a convenient meeting place for those doing business in other African countries.

These visitors and short-time business residents are likely to be found in boutique hotels in the Ville Nouvelle, along one of the boulevards laid out by the French in the 1920s. You can’t stay at the essential Ville Nouvelle villa, Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle, but you can visit its famed gardens, along with a museum of the designer’s work and life there which is to open next year.

Further afield on the outskirts of the city are grand hotels such as Es Saadi, the Selman Palace or even the Amanjena, where film stars have been known to chill at the weekend during extended film shoots. And on the Ezzahra Estate in the Palmeraie oasis area just outside town there is the newly opened Villa Azzatouna, with its own spa, tennis court, swimming pool and gardens.

In the Medina, Vanessa Branson’s Riad El Fenn has hosted some of the Sheltering Sky boho crowd on their return to the city. The rooftop restaurant and lounge is great for a drink and to watch the sunset, and serves as Marrakech’s version of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. (As one studio boss said to a misbehaving star: ‘If you insist on getting into trouble, at least do it at the Marmont.’) If you’re trying to catch that indie auteur in town or young actor just breaking out, it’s a good bet you’ll find them there. The slightly more reserved and traditional Riad Farnatchi, owned by the British hotelier Jonathan Wix, has a superb wine list, is a low-key power scene and would be akin to the Sunset Tower. If your taste requires something more Pacific, this autumn Hakkasan are opening their new Ling Ling restaurant at the new Mandarin Oriental.

Dealmakers, though, always head to the patio of La Mamounia, a place that has hosted Lawrence of Arabia producer Sam Spiegel, David Lean, John Huston and Francis Ford Coppola, not to mention kings and statesmen, including Winston Churchill. It would be too reductive to compare La Mamounia, perhaps the greatest hotel in the world, to the Beverly Hills Hotel of old, or the patio to the Polo Lounge, but they do make a club sandwich every bit as good. Lie back under the palms and you think you might be in paradise.

STAY

Mandarin Oriental’s first African hotel is a collection of suites and 54 individual villas set in 50 acres of impeccably maintained gardens framed by the Atlas Mountains. The hotel is just a short drive from the airport and the Medina. Rooms from €650 pre night. Read more here.

EAT

Navigate the maze of souks for lunch and a well-deserved cocktail above the rooftops at Nomad

DO

Visit Yves Saint-Laurent’s Majorelle gardens where the vibrant colours are dominated by its own ‘Majorelle blue’.
Learn how to make Argan oil at Nectrome at the foot of the Atlas Mountains.
Swap sand for snow and go skiing at Oukaimeden, just 45 miles from Marrakech.


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