Security worries cloud Star Wars returning to place where it all began

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 5:55pm

The sandy south Tunisian province whose stark landscape provided a backdrop for several Star Wars movies would embrace any returning Jedi knight.

"I was working non-stop, it was great," says local resident Tayeb Jallouli of his experience as a senior set technician on episodes of the franchise filmed in the region of Tataouine - which lent its name to Tatooine, the home planet of Jedi knight Luke Skywalker. In contrast, "the situation is tough now and I've had to take jobs as a home decorator to feed my family", he says.

From The English Patient to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the list of foreign films shot in Tunisia reads like a short guide to 20th-century cinema history. But after Tunisia's rebellion ignited the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, political instability and al-Qaeda-linked violence cut overseas productions to about five a year from about 40 previously.

Following the assassinations of two secular opposition leaders this year - attacks blamed on religious hardliners - mass protests toppled Tunisia's government and paralysed its successor. The country has also been hit by spillover from its neighbours, with mountain-based Algerian-linked Islamist militants fighting Tunisian troops. In Libya, the government is too weak to block arms merchants shipping weapons out of the country.

Filmmakers may have been deterred from returning to Tataouine by the location - it's the only Tunisian region to border both Algeria and Libya. "The south was experiencing an economic boom," says Ridha Turki, president of the National Chamber for Tunisian Film Producers. "Now it's a zone of parallel trade and transit for weapons and terrorism. Disorder is an ogre that is scaring away foreign producers and investors," he says.

This idea is backed by Faisal Rokh, a culture ministry spokesman who says: "We've lost the confidence of foreign producers."

The cumulative effect of all this has been profound for Tataouine. The loss of film, television and documentary earnings is only about 60 million dinars (US$36 million), according to Turki, with the drop in tourism and foreign direct investment being larger. But as movie work and tourism dried up in the region, unemployment soared to an estimated 52 per cent, about three times the national average.

Star Wars Episode VII is being shot at London's Pinewood studios early next year for a 2015 release. A spokeswoman for Walt Disney, which owns the film rights, says it's too early to say if any location shoots will take place in Tunisia.

The first foreign films shot in Tunisia were made in the early 1900s, when it was a French protectorate, with productions such as Princesse Tam Tam (1935), starring Josephine Baker as a local lass introduced to Parisian high society, according to Goucher College film studies professor Florence Martin.

"Tunisia really took off as a location in the 1970s," she says. "It was incredibly cheap and you had incredible scenery."

As well as the desert and underground Berber dwellings seen in Star Wars, spots favoured by foreign film producers include the seaside resort of Sousse and the fortifications of Monastir, where parts of Monty Python's Life of Brian were filmed.

Last month, a suicide bomber exploded outside a hotel used by foreigners in Sousse. Last year in Tunis, militants also targeted the US embassy, an American school, a cinema and local film directors.

While violence is far below the levels in Libya or Egypt, there has been enough to disrupt the transition to democracy in a country that began the Arab Spring with better infrastructure and a better-educated population than its neighbours.

Instability isn't the only cause of stalled location shoots. Incentives such as tax breaks were beginning to lure foreign producers to other countries even before 2011, says University of St Andrews researcher and author of Art and Trauma in Africa Stefanie Van de Peer.

"The golden age of films shot in Tunisia was the 1980s and 1990s, and now Morocco is big," she says. "There's a lack of money and a lack of foreign money."

Jallouli, the technician, recalls how the residents of Tataouine and Tozeur rejoiced when film crews arrived. He remains hopeful that security will return soon, and with it Star Wars, because that "would bring a sparkle back to Tunisia".

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