“THIS is where it all began,” says Abdou Ameur. “This is the house where Luke Skywalker grew up.” A low, domed building, a bit like an igloo, stands deserted and alone in the middle of a dried-up salt lake.
Salt crystals crunch underfoot as the wind whips fine sand through the huge basin. In the film, two suns blaze in the sky above the house. In real life, one sun is plenty, with temperatures rising to well over 40 degrees centigrade.
Abdou Ameur heads a small Star Wars fan club in Tunisia. He is fascinated by the sci-fi film series, which was first filmed in Tunisia and other locations in 1976.
When director George Lucas was searching for a barren desertscape for his film project, he chose this location on the edge of the Sahara Desert. He even gave his new planet the Tunisian name for the region: Tatooine.
The crew created sets in Tunisia to represent more than a dozen locations, including the spaceport of Mos Espa and the home of the film’s hero Luke Skywalker. Film crews also returned to Tunisia to film new episodes of the Star Wars saga in 1998.
Today, Luke’s little house made from papier mache, plaster and wooden slats sits abandoned in the desert, north of the oasis city of Tozeur.
A few Bedouins have now set up stalls on the sand here, waiting for tourists. “I have never seen the films,” says a young Bedouin, before offering me a camel ride.
Few tourists come to southern Tunisia these days. Those who visit the country at all stay on the beaches in the north. More than 400 kilometres further south, the country appears desolate – perfect for filming, not so good for people.
“We have to make sure that everyone here in the region profits from the sets and sees them as their heritage,” says Nabil Gasmi. With his regional tourism organisation CDTOS, Gasmi is trying to save the sets from decay and being forgotten.
“Some people spray graffiti here, or they sell things here that have nothing to do with Star Wars.”
Old photographs taken by Nabil Gasmi show parts of the sets collapsed and buried under metres of sand.
Around two years ago, Gasmi and others called for the film sets to be saved.
A huge shifting sand dune had covered the Mos Espa set.
With international help, including that of the German development agency GIZ, the sets were uncovered and 40,000 tonnes of sand removed to a safe distance.
Other films have also been shot in Tunisia, including “The English Patient” and “Indiana Jones,” but none has made such a lasting impact as Star Wars.
Gasmi dreams of developing the famous locations into a magnet for tourism, with a kiosk, museum, film screenings and festivals.
He wants the people of the region to be involved in the project.
Youth unemployment is particularly high on the northern edge of the Sahara.
“These buildings weren’t supposed to last forever,” says Tobias Seiberlich from the GIZ. Nevertheless, he says, they are now trying to create economic momentum around the film locations.
Even though large parts of the newer films were filmed in the United Arab Emirates, the GIZ expert is full of enthusiasm for Star Wars in Tunisia.
“The old films have a different character,” says Seiberlich. For nostalgics, he says, “Tunisia remains the place where it all began.” – Text and Photos by dpa