Exploring Tunisia's cinematic routes: how the country's pivotal role in film history could attract a new wave of tourism

A new scheme aims to highlight some of the areas made famous by films such as 'Star Wars' and 'Indiana Jones'

The Lars Homestead, Luke Skywalker’s childhood home, is located in the small Berber-speaking town of Matmata. Courtesy Simon Speakman Cordall
The Lars Homestead, Luke Skywalker’s childhood home, is located in the small Berber-speaking town of Matmata. Courtesy Simon Speakman Cordall

Tunisia’s place in film history isn’t widely known. However, the North African country can lay a convincing claim to having played a pivotal role in many of cinema’s most well-known productions. Over the years, Tunisia has doubled as ancient Rome, 1930s Egypt and even a small planet far, far away.

Now, after many years of neglect, the country's Ministry of Tourism, supported by the German international co-operation agency Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (Giz), will open up many of these locations to a new generation of film lovers, once the pandemic has passed.

Overall, locations from the Star Wars films, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Lost Legion, The English Patient, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Black Gold are being targeted.

Some, such as those for the The English Patient and Star Wars, partially overlap. Others, such as those in Life of Brian are as unique as their premise. However, all, to varying degrees, have been hit by the economic slide that prompted Tunisia’s revolution and the political and financial turmoil that came afterwards.

Sidi Bouhel, better known as the Juntland Wastes in the movies, was dubbed Star Wars Canyon by Lucasfilm. Courtesy Simon Speakman Cordall
Sidi Bouhel, better known as the Juntland Wastes in the movies, was dubbed Star Wars Canyon by Lucasfilm. Courtesy Simon Speakman Cordall

While the project, dubbed Cinematic Routes, remains in development, the hope is that private operators will be able to transport visitors to the sites from nearby tourist resorts or take the truly committed on individual tours of them. Many, such as the madinah in Kairouan, remain largely unchanged since Steven Spielberg filmed his 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark there. While that lack of architectural development allowed the location to convincingly double as Cairo, it can be perplexing to visiting film fans that few within the Tunisian city have heard of the film, or are all that likely to understand the passions it inspires.

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) IMDB
Harrison Ford in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981) IMDB

However, should Cinematic Routes bear fruit, it promises even greater dividends, with extras and backstage engineers from the original films also on hand to talk visitors through production. One extra who I met, Ezzedinemlik (Azziz), worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, on which he says he was asked to dress as a “sort of cow”. People like Azziz, such as other extras, construction professionals and location scouts, are found throughout Tunisia, and all are hungry to tell their stories.

For anyone really hoping to explore Tunisia’s rich cinema heritage, Tozeur is the place to visit. It is here that three of the world's most famous films all come together, specifically at Sidi Bouhlel Canyon, not far outside the desert city. It was within these dramatic sandstone walls that several scenes from the original Star Wars were shot, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The English Patient, which were all filmed within the same 500 yards of canyon.

Nearby stands the unique desert formation of Ong Jemel, or the Camel’s Neck, a short stub of raised sand that stands above the sprawling salty flats that were in The English Patient and the Star Wars prequels. Farther into the salt flats, or the Chott el Djerid, are the empty Star Wars sets from the first of the prequel films, which have largely been left to the care of trinket hucksters and souvenir hawkers. Elsewhere, practically lost within the endless horizons of the Chott el Djerid, is the small fibreglass igloo that served as the exterior of Luke Skywalker’s Tataouine home. Be warned, it can be tricky to find it on your own, but is a guaranteed pit stop on any cinema tour.

The interior of that home lies about three hours south, in Matmata. It was here that the traditional Amazigh troglodyte houses doubled as the interior of the Lars Homestead. The actual set remains largely intact and, before the pandemic, continued to get by as a hotel the Sidi Driss.

The Mos Espa set. Courtesy Simon Speakman Cordall
The Mos Espa set. Courtesy Simon Speakman Cordall

Its manager, Massoud Ben Rached, still maintains the property and its distinctive props that featured in the prequels, which dominate the property's main courtyard. However, the hotel has been largely closed for business since the pandemic hit.

“We were contacted by Giz around a month ago,” he tells The National. “They did say they’re going to help us, so we hope things will get better. They said they’re going to help us repair the broken decor and all. I hope they’ll help us change it with a new one. We do want to take care of the hotel, but you know, things aren’t that easy ... Money problems and all.”

Through the film route, tourists will be attracted to places that they might otherwise never have visited, also in remote areas of Tunisia”

Jose Frohling, Giz's Promotion of Sustainable Tourism in Tunisia

Travelling north along Tunisia’s stunning Mediterranean coast takes you to Monastir unrecognisable now from its appearance in the 1979 film Monty Python's Life of Brian where the city’s distinctive Ribat was transformed into a centre of Roman classicism, and where Brian Cohen, we’re told, was a very naughty boy.

Further north lies Nabeul, where part of 2007’s The Last Legion was filmed, as was 2011’s Black Gold. And not too far away lies the capital, Tunis. Here, if you have a mind to, you can seek out the Roman theatre where Brian found himself selling larks’ tongues, wrens’ livers and chaffinch brains to the crowds watching the gladiators fight. Nearby, though not directly related to any film (but it would be a shame not to go), stand the Roman ruins of the Antonine Baths, as well as ancient Carthage.

The Cinematic Routes project, which combines funding from several bodies, hopes to provide up to 1,000 new jobs, as well as draw tourism in Tunisia away from the sprawling resort hotels on which it has traditionally relied.

Visitors look at the set decor of the troglodyte Mos Esley Cantina made famous in the movie "Star Wars" where the strange underground dwellings and lunar landscape of the Matmata troglodyte community were used to portray an exotic planet world. Mike Nelson / EPA
The set decor of the troglodyte Mos Esley Cantina made famous in the film 'Star Wars'. Mike Nelson / EPA

“Through the film route, tourists will be attracted to places that they might otherwise never have visited, also in remote areas of Tunisia,” says Jose Frohling, who works with Giz's Promotion of Sustainable Tourism in Tunisia project. “Giz will support the local population and Tunisian enterprises to create touristic offers.

Frohling outlines how the routes would connect tourists with the locations and offer advice on how best to reach them. From there, Giz hopes to partner with local communities, municipalities and the private sector to develop ideas on how to best manage and promote the sites.

“Giz will support the site-owners and other partners in preserving and renovating the natural and cultural sites,” Frohling says. “From the beginning, we co-operate with all public and non-governmental stakeholders as well as the private sector, in order to anchor capacities locally. In this way we ensure that the routes create a long-term economic benefit for the local communities in these areas.”

The medina of Kairouan starred in Indiana Jones Radiers fo the Lost Ark. Unsplash 
The medina of Kairouan starred in 'Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Unsplash

Sadly, since its 2011 revolution and the rise of Morocco as a North African destination for directors looking to capture far-flung Middle Eastern vistas with all the amenities of the 21st century, Tunisia’s star has waned somewhat. While film production continues, many of those who were employed in some of the most famous films have had to find work elsewhere.

For them, and the hotels, restaurants and cafes near the locations slated for development, opening up the sites will provide a much-needed lifeline. And for anyone claiming to be interested in the history of modern cinema, it’s an unmissable opportunity.

Take the trip. The force is strong there.

Updated: May 3, 2021 08:32 AM

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