Sand dreams

Matilde Gattoni



They are Biblical refugees, ISIS fighters and Tibetan monks. They have built pyramids, marched under the beating sun or battled the American army, facing plagues, hunger and persecution for a paltry 25 euros per day. Far from the glittering world of Hollywood, they are the unsung heroes of cinema.

Within the narrow alleys of a centuries-old Kasbah, in the heart of an enchanting oasis in the Moroccan desert, live a myriad of background actors who have featured in hundreds of world-acclaimed movies, documentaries and TV series such as James Bond, Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Although they have played along top celebrities during their decade-long-careers, no-one knows their names.

Despite having dedicated their existence to cinema, they live a life of hardship, working 16 hours per day and ending up with no money to secure their old age, with a handful of yellowed photos as the only souvenir of a glorious past. Yet, the passion they show for their profession is the most touching and sincere testimony to the greatness of cinema.

Each night, as they leave the sumptuous sets and venture back to their crumbling houses their hearts full of hope and pride, they dream of becoming the next star.

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  • Oasis of Fint - The mountains surrounding the Oasis of Fint, seen from the K Studios. The Oasis has been the set of several well-known movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, Alibaba, Moses and Cleopatra.

  • Ouarzazate - Fatima Zahra el Hassani, 11, sits at her parent's house. Thanks to her expressive eyes and beautiful features, Fatima Zahra el Hassani is one of the most sough-after young actors in Ouarzazate. Despite being only 11, she has already featured in several TV series such as Game of Thrones, Prison Break and King Tut, playing everything from the poor Afghan girl in American war movies to the young queen. Coming from a destitute family, el Hassani dreams of becoming a movie star. “I don't act as an extra anymore” she explains. “My mother allows me to skip school only for important roles.”

  • Ouarzazate - Atlas Corporation Studio. The temple in the background has been used for several ancient Egypt-based movies, including Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra.

  • Ouarzazate - Nicknamed Osama Bin Laden after his resemblance to the defunct al-Qaeda's leader, Abdelaziz Bouyadnaine, 59, is one of the longest-serving background actors in Ouarzazate. During his career he has appeared in more than 100 movies and documentaries, including blockbuster movies like Babel and Kingdom of Heaven, and has played together with renowned actors such as Omar Sharif and Jean-Claude Van Damme. “I love this job” he explains. “It has given me the opportunity to meet top foreign actors and to develop what I like most. Cinema has a unique atmosphere.”

  • Ouarzazate - An Egyptian temple within the Atlas Corporation Studio in Ouarzazate. Thanks to its clear skies and bright light, the absence of noise and the mountains and desert surrounding it, the city is the perfect setting for mostly historical and biblical movies.

  • Ouarzazate - Rquia Farres, 67, has been working in the cinema industry for the past 36 years. Now an old, frail woman about to leave her home to move in a retirement house, Farres has featured in more than 50 films and documentaries, mainly as an extra. Her latest appearance dates back to 10 years ago. “Being a background actor is very hard” she explains. “Depending on the movie, you have to run, fight, die, climb mountains... You work more than 10 hours per day to earn from 15 to 40 euros.”

  • Ouarzazate - Remains of a film set reproducing the Great Mosque of Mecca. The set, which is in the middle of the desert on the outskirts of Ouarzazate, was used for the shooting of Journey to Mecca, a 2009 movie on the famous Muslim scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta.

  • Ouarzazate - Mohamed Habib, 32, portrayed in his family house. “I like the atmosphere of cinema, it gives me a lot of energy. Even if I have to wake up at 4 in the morning to prepare a scene, I do it willingly, because I feel I am doing something important” explains Mohamed Habib, 32. A background actor, stuntman and nowadays assistant director, Habib started his cinema career when he was 6. Among the movies he participated in are Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven and Charlie Wilson war, a drama film set in Afghanistan starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

  • Ouarzazate - Now almost abandoned, this complex was built in 1996 by an Italian production. It represents Jerusalem and served for the shooting of dozens of religious movies, the latest of which is 2015 TV film Killing Jesus, produced by National Geographic Channel.

  • Ouarzazate - A picture of Mohamed Habib's father showing him on a movie set. Mohamed's father is one of the first Ouarzazati who has ever worked in the film industry.

  • Ouarzazate - Located within the Atlas Corporation Studios, this boat was used for the movie Cleopatra.