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.
Namibia began attracting productions in the mid-1990s, when a German television show filmed a ship-borne love story in Swakopmund, a coastal tourist town once central to Germany's colonial holdings in southwestern Africa. German architecture, language and culture still survive there, fueling Namibia's popularity as a place to film television shows and movies for European viewers.
A German hip-hop band filmed a video in the dunes of the Namib, as did singer Seal, said Guy Nockels of Namib Film, a production service company based there.
Reality television has found Namibia as well. A British game show challenged contestants to build a device capable of flying an egg, unbroken, across southern Namibia's vast Fish River Canyon (none succeeded). A German production, meanwhile, moved a family to a traditional Namibian village to see if its members could survive.
Although the name of that show, "Like the Savages," caused a backlash in Namibia, the industry is generally embraced here as a source of jobs, however temporary, in a country with a serious shortage of them. Film and television productions often import most actors and technicians, but they also hire Namibians as drivers and for unskilled crew jobs.
"The film industry helps this town tremendously, because the unemployed suddenly have some money in their pockets to buy food," said Freddy Kaukungua, a top assistant to Swakopmund's mayor.
Hollywood producers often base their operations in Swakopmund but film mainly in the dunes of the Namib, which is the world's oldest and driest desert and runs along the country's long Atlantic coast. The desert's ethereal landscapes shift from soft orange to chalky white to rocky gray in a matter of miles, offering diverse scenery uncluttered by buildings or noisy traffic. One especially parched, jagged section of the Namib is known simply as "the Moonscape."
"Beyond Borders," "Flight of the Phoenix" and "10,000 B.C.," which is due for release next year, were all filmed in the Namib. And "Beyond Borders," though not a popular hit, led to a massive dose of international publicity for Swakopmund when the movie's star, Angelina Jolie, later moved to the town for more than a month with her partner, Brad Pitt, for the birth of their child.
"That marketing . . . ah!" said Almuth Styles, owner of Namib-i, a tourism information office in Swakopmund. "You can't pay for it. It puts Namibia on the map."
"GallowWalker," an independent, low-budget production financed mainly by British investors, settled on the Namib after considering deserts in Spain, China, Mexico and New Mexico. Shooting outside the United States proved to be an auspicious decision because Snipes, the movie's only well-known star, had faced an arrest warrant on tax-related charges. He was arrested last week in Florida and released on bond.
Producer Joanne Reay, who also wrote the script, said the combination of low costs, decent infrastructure and lack of union wage requirements made Namibia appealing. But it was the scenery that closed the deal.
"It's absolutely everything that we wanted," Reay said. "You can shoot 360 degrees and never run out of the world you are creating."
For a western with sinister, supernatural elements, the Namib offered an unexpected bonus to "GallowWalker": At one of the desert shooting locations, a naturally occurring rock formation has an eerie resemblance to a skull, complete with eye sockets and a row of jagged teeth.
Reay was amazed at her good fortune. "All the set designs, done by God."