Haven't I been here before?

Tunisia has become a favourite location for film-makers, and with good reason. It is the ultimate dreamscape. By Ann Noon
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What could Judaea circa AD 33, Egypt in the 1930s and several Hollywood blockbusters possibly have in common? The answer is that they can all be found in Tunisia. Not on a standard map of the globe perhaps, but in that fantastical world where making one country resemble another needs little technical wizardry and the camera doesn't necessarily have to lie.

Who would have thought for example that the rocky red Atlas mountains of North Africa could look anything like the snowy Himalayan plateau of Tibet? Yet in Martin Scorsese's Kundun, Morocco should have won an Oscar for its starring role as the roof of the world. Which just goes to show that location scouts can refresh parts of a movie that million-dollar special effects can't always reach.

Kundun couldn't be shot in Tibet for obvious political reasons, but why did the production team behind The English Patient decide to recreate Egypt in its next-door-but-one neighbour Tunisia? Tunis standing in for Cairo might sound odd at first until you realise that modern-day Tunis feels more like the Egyptian capital of 60 years ago than the real thing does today. Cairo's population has more than tripled in the intervening years and much of its definitive architecture has been lost, whereas 1990s Tunis is home to a similar size community as wartime Cairo and many of its 19th century Ottoman residences remain in pristine condition.

Tunisia finds it easier still to impersonate a world that is out of this world. With its vast swathe of Saharan desert, troglodyte dwellings and Tolkienesque granaries, southern Tunisia calls to mind some planet in a galaxy far, far away; the planet of Tatooine in fact.

Much has already been made of the die-hard Star Wars groupies heading off on pilgrimage to the mountainous lunar landscapes of the Sand People and the roughly hewn caves of Matmata where Luke Skywalker's family homestead was destroyed in Episode IV: A New Hope. This indeed is Tatooine, the word itself a corruption of Tataouine - a Berber stronghold that nestles in a south-eastern pocket of Tunisia - and a new generation of spaceheads is expected to migrate to Tunisia's nether regions this winter where two tumbledown sets from Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace lie quietly gathering sand.

By a strange quirk of fate, the Mos Espa set is just a few dunes away from the spot where Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott-Thomas were nearly buried alive by a ferocious sandstorm in The English Patient. The Sahara desert might cover more than three million square miles, but one particular square mile just outside the town of Tozeur is well on its way to making celluloid history.

Not destined to be quite so immortal is the film set of Peut-etre, a French production due out at the end of this year, starring the legendary Jean-Paul Belmondo. Submerged in the desert, not far from the town of Douz, stands a whole street. Not just any street, but a Parisian street. And as if that wasn't weird enough, the action takes place in the future with a plot that involves an ill wind blowing sand all over the French capital. The words "straight to video" spring to mind. Maybe the new Mike Figgis film which also includes scenes shot on location in Tunisia will fare better, although with a title like The Loss of Sexual Innocence one can never be certain.

About 250 miles north-east of the ochre sandscapes of the Sahara is the popular holiday resort of Monastir whose yellowing Ribat of Harthema, or fort, has appeared in more religious epics than Charlton Heston. From Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth to Monty Python's less reverent Life of Brian, Monastir's most recognisable landmark is better known these days as North Africa's very own Jerusalem. As the century nears its end, it seems natural to expect a resurrection of tales from the Bible on both the big and small screen. Only a few weeks ago, a British crew toured Tunisia shooting a feature-length version of The Three Kings with Vanessa Redgrave.

When movie-makers do try and pass one country off as another, it is almost impossible to stop a touch of local colour from creeping into the final cut. The episode in Life of Brian when an indignant stall holder admonishes Brian for not haggling properly could have come straight from the souks in Monastir, where cheeky traders harangue hesitant shoppers in fluent Cockney. Then there's Obi-Wan Kenobi's trademark hooded cloak which is a dead ringer for the heavy woollen burnous worn in southern Tunisia. A country's traditions can even, in some instances, make or break a film. When the crew of The English Patient needed to transport several tons of equipment up a mountain to the remote cave where Kristin Scott- Thomas's character dies, there was talk of hiring a fleet of helicopters. The Tunisians could scarcely contain their laughter; after all, what else is a donkey for?

Philippa Day is production co-ordinator for CTV Services, a Tunisian company that works with directors and crews to help ease them through the arduous rigours of filming in a foreign country. Asked what attracts film-makers to Tunisia, she cites two principal reasons: size and money. "Tunisia's a relatively small country so it's easy and less costly to get around but you can pretty much find any scenery that you want, whether it's sprawling desert vistas or lush green forest," she said. "And with the worldwide success of The English Patient, Tunisian technicians have earned a reputation for being as skilled as their European or American counterparts, but of course their daily rate isn't as high."

So can a multi Oscar-winning blockbuster really be the making of a destination? In 1997, when The English Patient was released, the number of visitors to Tunisia from the UK rose by more than 20 per cent. Not everyone went in search of the mountain cave where Kristin Scott-Thomas expired so prettily, but tour operators did report an increase in popularity for their two- and three-day desert safaris. It's too early to tell whether Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace will see bookings soar but rumour has it that the film's producer will be back in Tunisia next month, recycling locations for Episode II.

In the meantime, if, while scrunching away on your popcorn, you think "Haven't I seen that stretch of desert some place before", the chances are you probably have.

Several tour operators offer desert safaris that include film locations. For further information, contact the Tunisian National Tourist Office on 0171 224 5561

Traveller's Guide

Getting there: GB Airways, an affiliate of British Airways (0345 222111) has flights from Gatwick to Tunis each Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. Tunis Air (0171-734 7644) flies from Heathrow to Tunis on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and to Djerba on Thursdays.

At this time of year, expect to pay around pounds 250 return, though fares will fall when Tunisia starts cooling off in September.

Cheaper deals may be available on charter flights, in particular to Monastir - only a few miles from Sousse, and accessible on the "Sahel Metro". For travel within Tunisia, you can choose between railways, buses and collective taxis. If you want to rent a car, main roads are good. The best map is Michelin sheet 972, covering Algeria and Tunisia.

More information: Tunisian National Tourist Office, 77a Wigmore Street, London W1H 9LJ (0171-224 5561).

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