All aboard the new Marrakesh express

Film-makers such as Oliver Stone are slowly turning the Moroccan city into the Hollywood of Africa, Kaleem Aftab reports

The popular image of Marrakesh as the home of souks, camels and snake charmers is about to get a movie makeover if the organisers of the Marrakesh International film festival get to rewrite the script for the city. The festival is turning into a central part in the country's wooing of Hollywood and the attempt to establish the city as the Bollywood of Africa. There was no end to the glamour as stars including Sean Connery walked the red carpet and the royal family threw lavish parties for the guests and the press flown in for the festival.

Casablanca may have its place in Hollywood folklore but it is Marrakesh that has become the focal point of Africa's growing cinema industry. The city is called the New York of Morocco in acknowledgement of the liberal attitudes of the local population that set it apart from the rest of the country. The friendly vibe has not gone unnoticed by film-makers, and in the past year both Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott have make Marrakesh the home to their epic films.

While the government is encouraging Western film-makers to come to the city, it is Bollywood films that Moroccans want to see. Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachan remains the biggest film star in the country, and this year's festival contains a retrospective on the Indian diaspora aimed primarily at pleasing a Moroccan public usually turned off by Western fare.

Now in its fourth year, the festival has become a major promotional tool for the film industry. Sean Connery claimed "this is the genuine film festival" as he picked up a lifetime achievement award before a gala screening of Oliver Stone's Alexander. Stone followed him on stage and announced in French: "Without Morocco there would be no film. It is the place where the East meets the West."

The next day inthe Palais des Congrès, Stone elaborated: "We tried to make the film in Hollywood. But when we factored all the unit costs in California we were way over budget. In Morocco we could run 500 to 2,000 extras a day. It's not possible to do this kind of movie in America."

But it is not just the financial savings that are luring film-makers to Morocco. Stone added: "Morocco had five different looks we liked: we used Essaouira for Greece; we shot the Atlas mountains to double as Hindu Kush and we shot the battle on a broad plain outside Marrakesh. There was not a single dwelling or TV antenna."

There has also been an attempt to encourage Moroccans to make films, and last year a record 10 home-grown films were made. Nour-Eddine Sail, general manager of the Moroccan Cinema Centre, said, "We cannot expect Marrakesh to become a centre of films overnight, but the festival is part of the process of encouraging film-makers to come and also to get Moroccans to make films. Since the festival started four years ago, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of technicians and in casting."

British director Stephen Woolley, who recently shot scenes in Marrakesh for his forthcoming picture The Wild and Wycked World of Brian Jones, said: "The crew was very efficient and there was a sense of family. I have nothing but good things to say." Any worries film-makers may have in upsetting local Islamic sensibilities by shooting nudity are also dispelled by Woolley. "We shot nudity and there did not seem to be a problem with any of the crew."

Yet problems of the Islamic world have disrupted Moroccan attempts to establish itself. Stone revealed that production was almost stopped after Casablanca was bombed last year. "There was a tremendous pressure to quit the country, but we felt secure," he says. "The king and his ministers stepped in to help."

The number of celebrities on show at this year's festival indicates that the bombing in Casablanca has had no ill effects on Marrakesh. Indeed Sir Alan Parker, chair of the festival jury, added, "It is remarkable how the Moroccan authorities are using cinema as a political tool to bridge the gap between East and West. The festival is highlighting the importance of cinema in a way that the message inside movies sometimes does not."

Marrakesh is trying to be more than the Bollywood of Africa; it wants to be the Hollywood of Africa too. It's an ambitious plan that will need more than snake charmers wooing celebrities to succeed.