As Star Wars: The Force Awakens continues its global box office domination, it’s worth remembering that George Lucas’ original 1977 classic tale of Jedis and the Dark Side was far from a sure thing. While that film’s subsequent success has gone down in film lore, and led to J.J. Abrams’ billion dollar and counting juggernaut, one fascinating sidenote from Star Wars: A New Hope is the impact the film had on the small Mediterranean country of Tunisia. Sandwiched between Libya and Algeria in North Africa, Tunisia was where Lucas, and his production supervisor Robert Watts and producer Gary Kurtz, found Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine. Back in the 1970’s, Tunisia was an unlikely setting for a blockbuster science-fiction film. That decision, however, would have a momentous impact on the country economically as well as politically. Arguably, it helped set in place a small, but important, brick in the foundation that saw Tunisia and its National Dialogue Quartet presented with the Nobel Peace Price earlier this month.
“At the time we were a poor country, with no infrastructure, we didn’t have any equipment, we didn’t have sophisticated technicians, maybe a few kids out of film school, and I had no experience except for a couple of Italian films I’d worked on,” recalls Franco-Tunisian mogul Tarak Ben Ammar, who oversaw the shoot in the country then aged 27 years old. “Back then, I was saying yes to any project that wanted to come and shoot in Tunisia. George needed a desert that could look like an alien planet that wasn’t too far from Europe. That was the beauty of Tunisia. We were only one hour from Rome, two hours and fifteen minutes from Paris, two and a half hours from London. Remember George didn’t have a lot of money to make the film. We had no idea how big the film would become. Nobody did. Not Fox, not anybody. It was a small science fiction film. At the time I was filming the TV production of Jesus of Nazareth in Tunisia with Franco Zeffirelli and Robert Powell and I thought that was bigger than Star Wars.”
The challenges of the shoot were numerous. Firstly, convincing a Hollywood crew to come shoot in the Arab world, at a time when Arab-Israeli hostilities were at their highest, was not easy. In Tunisia’s favour was its implicit recognition of the state of Israel in 1965, following a historic speech in Jericho by then-Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, calling on the need for a two state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. Bourguiba, also Ben Ammar’s uncle, earned the wrath of then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for his Jericho speech but also helped the young country- which had only achieved post-colonial independence from France two decades earlier- stand out on the international stage. What also helped Tunisia was the country’s constitutionally protected equal rights for women as well as its well-developed education system. Tunisia also was home to a vibrant Jewish community on the island of Djerba, where Lucas shot the scenes with the shaggy-haired beasts of burden he called “Jerba” in homage to the island (you can see them chained up next to the Mos Eisley Cantina).
“George liked the fact we had young, developed and educated men and women, and even if he isn’t aware of it, he really is the founding father of the Tunisian film industry thanks to his efforts and the impact of Star Wars,” says Ben Ammar. “The Tunisian men and women that worked on Star Wars, and then later Raiders of the Lost Ark, and all the other films that came to shoot there, got a film school you could never even dream of. George was so generous with the Tunisian crew. I went to prove that film is really the international language and that on a film set it doesn’t matter if you speak Arabic or English because we’re already all on the same page.”
It didn’t mean there weren’t challenges. One flash flood saw one entire set washed away within hours, leaving the crew to frantically rebuild it from scratch with the assistance of the Tunisian army. Also, the shoot’s location- in the south of the country near Tozeur- was remote even by 1976 standards.
“Back then, of course, there were no mobile phones, no emails, we barely had the telex and even those didn’t work,” says Ben Ammar. “In the southern parts of Tunisia there were no phones. You had to wait for three hours just to make a phone call to get a line. But the fact that George not only would come back with other Star Wars films but also help convince a great filmmaker like Steven Spielberg to shoot Raiders a couple of years later really helped put us on the map. Without him I would not have had the career I have had, and neither would we have employed so many people in Tunisia. The film industry in Tunisia has employed 850,000 people since Star Wars. In a poor country of ten million people, that’s a lot.”
Now a shareholder and board member of the Weinstein Company, as well as board member of StudioCanal parent Vivendi, Ben Ammar has amassed his own international media operations. One of those is Tunisian TV channel Nessma, which played a critical role in fostering the positive dialogue between the Islamist political movement Ennahda and centrist party of current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. That dialogue, which saw Ennahda peacefully relinquish power and spare Tunisia the kind of bloodshed seen in Egypt, Libya or Syria, was at the heart of the Nobel committee’s decision to award its prestigious Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. Without the likes of Nessma, and more importantly, the hundreds of skilled media professionals in the country who were able to steer the daily conversation away from fanaticism towards understanding, that dialogue would have been immeasurably harder to achieve.
“What do we see in the world today? The ignorance of ISIS, on the one hand, or Donald Trump on the other,” says Ben Ammar. “Ignorance leads to wars. Tunisia got a Nobel Peace Prize for dialogue and peace. We owe George a lot. Hollywood can change the world. It can make a difference when it inspires young people in these countries to not go into terrorism but to go into culture. Our TV networks were able to help and defend civil society against the forces of extremism and fanaticism. Look at the message of Star Wars. May the Force Be With You. The force of Star Wars helped bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to Tunisia and inspire so many young men and women.