The Tunisian set of Star Wars was about to be destroyed by a sand dune before fans stepped up.
The set of Darth Vader's hometown, in Tataouine. Photo via Flickr user Vincent Bellet.
The Tunisian desert city of Tataouine that gave its name to the home planet of Darth Vader was under threat of a powerful sand dune before fans across the world mobilized to protect it from desertification. A large barkhane dune would have swallowed up the sets of Mos Espa, the town located in the fictional desert planet of Tatooine, by September were it not for the collaborative efforts of the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism, preservationists, and Star Wars geeks from all over the globe. Last March, workers began removing the sand that swallowed the Star Wars sets up. Using money fundraised on IndieGogo and supplementary funds provided by the Tunisian government, they’ve since begun to restore the clay dwellings that featured in the film franchise as the spaceport Anakin Skywalker called home.
George Lucas first began filming scenes for his iconic films in Tunisia in 1976. He enlisted the creative expertise of Tunisian art director Taïeb Jellouli, who transformed the ancient Berber town into the fictional spaceport of Mos Espa. In a 1999 interview with the Washington Post, Jellouli reveals that they had trouble with sand storms even during filming.
“We had a very hard storm that destroyed a big part of the set,” he told the Post. “It was very dramatic for the crew. But we started immediately rebuilding the set with a lot of enthusiasm and courage. And we kept shooting on schedule.”
In Star Wars mythology, it was in Mos Espa that Anakin Skywalker was first introduced to his Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi. In reality, the Mos Espa set is located alongside and within a number of heritage sites, like the Ong Jemel-Nefta site, a famous camel-shaped rock that featured in the podrace scene from Phantom Menace, and Ksar Hedada, a clay castle used as the set for Mos Espa’s slave quarters.
In the decades since, the Star Wars sets have become extremely valuable to Tunisia’s tourism industry, drawing in thousands of the film franchise’s fans to southern Tunisia each year. Ksar Hedada is now a popular hotel and Star Wars pilgrims trek out to the Ong Jemel-Nefta site to take photos and pay homage to the legendary films. Local Tunisians prize the location as well – not only does it provide critical economic revenues, it’s also become a part of the town’s cultural identity. In their version of Pharrell’s Happy music video, Tataouine residents made their video Star Wars-themed.
In recent years, Tunisia’s tourism industry has suffered from violence and political instability. Since the 2001 uprising that drove Presidence Ben Ali out of power, the industry has had trouble recovering. The restoriation of the Star Wars sets are not just about preserving a pop culture landmark – they’re about the salvation of an important local economy.
“Before the revolution, all of the south of Tunisia was a major tourism spot,” said a representative from the Save Mos Espa project to the BBC. “Since the revolution and since the area was forbidden by foreign countries, by Europe, many hotels have closed. So all the people that were working... in tourism are not employed anymore.”