Grumbles in the jungle - a heavyweight slanging match

In one corner, Will Smith, Hollywood and a $100m Muhammad Ali biopic - in the other, the impoverished country where they're shooting it
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Midway through singing "Just the Two of Us", Will Smith stops rapping to have a drink. "Hey! Don't I know you from Philly?" he says jovially. The ironic comment is entirely lost on the Mozambican waiter handing him a glass of water. We're at the five-star Hotel Polana in Maputo, where Smith, who wears baggy jeans but still gets treated like a president, is performing at the wrap party for Ali, in which he plays the title role.

When Hollywood comes to Africa, neither the beautiful folk nor the people of the old, old continent know what to make of it all. The mutual incomprehension reminds one of 1974, when Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and their coteries travelled to Kinshasa, Zaire, for the "Rumble in the Jungle".

The Americans then, as now, came in force and lived in plush compounds, isolated from ordinary people. Ali, who had refused to fight in the Vietnam war and railed against American racism, yearned to feel empathy with his African brothers. A generation later, Will Smith and an entourage drawn from the super-confident black American élite, comes to Africa with a similar ambition. Africa, however, has not changed.

On the streets of the Mozambican capital, chosen because it looks like Kinshasa and there isn't a war on, people have come up with their own ironic touch. Not entirely innocently, the street sellers call the movie "Imperial", after the South African car-hire company whose name features on the doors of 90 rental vehicles brought in from South Africa by Columbia Pictures.

Certainly, the film ­ which also stars Jon Voight, the boxer Charles Shufford and Jamie Foxx ­ is inescapable. When you land at Maputo airport, the lettering on the roof of the terminal welcomes you to "aeroport international de Kinshasa". In the car park, filled with Peugeot 504s and Citroën DSs, green and yellow billboards herald " le combat du siècle" ("the bout of the century") as " un honneur pour l'homme noir" ("an honour for the black man").

But it is not entirely clear whether hosting director Michael Mann's Ali really is such an honour for the black men and women of this southern African country. After all, if Hollywood Reporter's $106m budget estimate is correct, the money being spent on this film compares rather obscenely to other statistics from Mozambique. For example, when South African helicopters rescued 3,000 Mozambicans in 10 days at the height of last year's floods, their $3m price tag was considered high. The country's most lucrative export, tiger prawns, yields $85m a year. In fact, the former Portuguese colony's entire annual export earnings amount to less than $300m.

Mozambique's film industry, which flourished for a brief period after independence, is dead, and the country does not have a boxing ring worthy of the name. Local film-maker Camilo de Sousa, who was not involved with Ali, feels cheated: "If I want to make a film, the government charges me import duty on my tapes and my equipment. These guys have paid nothing. This deal was sewn up between the Americans and the presidency. The working conditions are poor for anyone hired locally, and Mozambican film professionals have not been given the opportunity to gain experience on the shoot."

Spiros Esculupes, president of the country's boxing federation, is also bitter: "We do not have any facilities. We could be world-class but we are boxing with gloves the Portuguese left behind at independence in 1974. It would have been nice if we had gained something from Ali."

Others see things differently. Papadjo Malo and 150 other Mozambicans have got full-time jobs out of the shoot, as set-dressers, drivers or security guards. Hundreds more have been hired for odd jobs, and thousands of people got $20 a shift (equal to an average month's earnings) to appear as extras. Machava Stadium has been improved by the film-makers at a cost of $100,000 and made to look like Kinshasa's Stade du 20 Mai.

Malo, a 38-year-old former footballer, gets $250 a week for a six-day, 12-hour working schedule as set-dresser on the film. Malo's job has been to "make" the 60,000 crowd that watched the "Rumble in the Jungle" on 20 October 1974 and whose cries of "Ali, boma ye!" ("Ali, kill him!") spurred the boxer through eight rounds to ultimate victory. He mounted cardboard cut-outs of 20,000 people on to wooden frames.

"The first time they shot the boxing-match scene," he says, "they brought in 15,000 extras. But people got fidgety and there was a stampede. One boy was injured. So we were told to create more cardboard cut-outs in a hurry. These are made from life-size photos of 11 people, copied again and again. They look very realistic, especially when there's a breeze and they move a little."

Malo does this bizarre job under the gaze of Mobutu Sese Seko. Massive portraits of the man, with his trademark leopardskin hat, who ruled Zaire for 32 years, have been mounted at all four corners of the stadium. He believes that, on balance, working on the film has been good and a rare insight into an extraordinary world. But he complains of racist treatment by the foremen. In 1974, George Foreman arrived in Kinshasa with his German shepherd dog, which immediately reminded people of their former hated masters, the Belgians. In a similarly tactless move, the Americans have brought in their own South African ridgebacks: a large group of individuals, the most visible and loud of whom work in transport or set-building. Their common denominators are white skin, red necks, walkie-talkies, and mothers who never taught them to say "please".

"It got so bad that we had to organise a meeting with the South Africans," says Malo. "Those South Africans cannot treat blacks badly at home any more but they feel they can do it here." Malo's words are echoed by Trent, a member of Smith's close-knit African-American coterie: "I have been really shocked by the racism on this set. Those guys could never behave like they do in the United States."

The truth is that the South Africans are useful bogeymen. To the Mozambicans, they are the nasty rich neighbours who have made all the money through contracts to supply cars, trucks, catering and even the drinking water for the cast. To the Americans ­ all staying in top hotels or in the presidential compound, and each supplied with a 30-page handbook of "don'ts" ­ they are the bullies who get things done, supply the safe drinking water and provide a useful scapegoat.

Ali could not be compared to The Beach, in which terrible things were done to the environment. Maputo has had several coats of paint: the City Hall was turned into Mobutu's palace; the Avenida Hotel hosted Ali's suite; a college was spruced up and used as the training gym; and President Joaquim Chissano's family transport firm supplied Smith's Chevrolet.

What has been hard to take for Mozambique has been the arrogance implied by Hollywood's ostentation. "Can you believe the money they are prepared to spend?" asks Luis Sarmento, a sound engineer who worked with the US sound crew and is one of only two Mozambicans given close access to the set. "They spent six weeks building a plasterboard and wooden house to represent Ali's compound. They used helicopters to ferry the director and the stars there. The exercise cost $500,000 and it represents three minutes of the movie. This makes me sick," he says.

Hollywood is leaving Africa. Soon, editing will begin. The film will open in the US at the end of the year. Pierce, an African-American who came to Mozambique as Smith's hair-stylist, says it has been "like coming home". He loves "the Africans' sense of their own history and of community ­ something we do not have in the US".

Other Americans have rarely left their hotels and have slavishly followed their "don'ts" handbook: no ice in drinks, only South African water allowed, no going out at night, and no food outside the hotel. It is a shame, since Mozambique has perfectly good mineral water, and Maputo has a low crime rate and probably the best prawns in the world.