Hollywood Finds a New Set In Vast Desert of Namibia

Wesley Snipes plays a gunslinger in
Wesley Snipes plays a gunslinger in "GallowWalker," filmed in the Namib Desert. (Four Entertainment Via Associated Press)

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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 15, 2006

NAMIB DESERT, Namibia -- The blonde in the cowboy hat stepped forward with slow, swaggering menace, her boots crunching audibly on the sand below. As the camera zoomed tight on her green zombie eyes, the desert beyond completed the scene with the kind of bleached-out desolation no Hollywood studio could provide.

And though the eyes were fakes, the desolation was real. "GallowWalker," a zombie-infested western, is being shot in remote corners of the Namib Desert, a vast sea of undulating sand and stone that has joined the growing ranks of popular African filming locations.

"It's fantastic! Just look! It's beautiful!" Henner Hofmann, the director of photography, marveled as he set the cameras for a tricky shot in which fake boulders and stuntmen tumble noisily down a steep, pale-orange rock face. "Namibia offers that clean air and extreme distance in the view because pollution is almost nothing."

The Namib is not the only location in Africa bewitching filmmakers. From the slums of Kenya to the once-genocidal streets of Rwanda to the villages of Mozambique, Hollywood has embraced Africa -- as a place to shoot films and as a source of fresh dramatic themes.

"GallowWalker," starring Wesley Snipes as a gunslinger taunted by a posse of his former victims returned from the dead, will include no explicit references to Africa and is unlikely to find its way onto any Oscar short lists. But many films shot recently in Africa have won critical acclaim and turned the gaze of pop culture to issues little noticed by most Westerners, such as the destructive illegal gems trade dramatized in "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

AIDS, apartheid, crime, gunrunning, murderous militias in Darfur and the misdeeds of the pharmaceutical industry all have been featured in films shot in Africa over the past few years. And as the themes have broadened, the film industry also has pushed beyond its traditional African home in Cape Town in favor of more challenging settings.

Irmgard Schreiber, director of a film festival in Namibia's capital of Windhoek, said movie producers come to the continent looking for "African flair" to distinguish their work from standard Hollywood offerings.

"I think that's why the international film industry sees so much potential in Africa, from the sceneries, from the people and also from the stories," Schreiber said from Windhoek.

Schreiber, like many African film enthusiasts, lamented the shortage of homegrown productions in an industry dominated by Hollywood money, personalities and storytelling styles. Most of the Namibian films in her annual festival are short features and documentaries rather than the full-length, big-budget productions capable of reaching movie theaters around the world.

"There's a lot of stories to be done here," she said. "It's a pity more Africans aren't doing more of these stories."

The increasingly important exception is South Africa. Its sophisticated film industry, which got its start by offering scenery that served as inexpensive stand-ins for other countries, has produced Oscar nominees for best foreign language film each of the past two years. It won this year with "Tsotsi," about a gangster whose life is transformed when he accidentally comes to care for a vulnerable infant.

The generally well-received "Catch a Fire," based on events in the violent final decade of apartheid, also has deep roots in South Africa, which provided the setting, many of the actors and the writer, Shawn Slovo, daughter of prominent anti-apartheid activists.


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