“Black Gold” was shot jointly in Tunisia and Qatar in the stunning landscapes of the desert plains of Tozeur, the mountainous terrain of Matmata, the oasis of Chebika and the outskirts of Hammamet in Tunisia, as well as the breathtaking sand dunes of Messaieed in Qatar.
From the start, both Jean-Jacques Annaud and Tarak Ben Ammar envisaged “Black Gold” on an epic scale. Their intention was to recreate the classic spectacles of the Golden Age of cinema while simultaneously presenting viewers a story rooted in a modern, contemporary sensibility. The filmmakers knew their story about the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula could only be told on the grandest possible canvas.
Qatar came on board as both a location and a co-producing partner through the newly-inaugurated Doha Film Institute (DFI), founded by H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Messaieed is 50km North of Doha and has a special kind of sand dune that leads directly into the sea, which is a crucial scene in the book.
“It was perfect. I love deserts and I know that deserts are very different all over the world. Even the colour of the sand varies from place to place. What I loved in Qatar was this very arid desert that went right into the sea. It was exciting, and a privilege, for me as a director to shoot in a place where no cameras have ever been.” – Jean-Jacques Annaud
“Black Gold” marks DFI’s first foray into a major international feature production, through a mix of equity, services and locations. Some 20 DFI staff were on set daily documenting the process and more than 200 residents and locals from Doha worked on the shoot behind and in front of the cameras. The collaboration also provided the opportunity for DFI students to undertake internships on the production.
Renowned photographer Brigitte Lacombe was on set in Qatar to capture Jean-Jacques Annaud and his crew filming in the desert on the final days of the shoot, documenting a true milestone for Qatar. Jump to the ‘In Production’ gallery.
Tunisia set the scene for many of the dramatic battle scenes as well as the kingdoms of Salmaah and Hobeika. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud was keen to make two contrasting visual looks for the rival kingdoms.
There was stone architecture for Salmaah, the mountainous fortress of the conservative Sultan Amar and his tribe, with the colourful costumes inspired by past rule of the Ottoman Empire. For Hobeika, Emir Nesib’s kingdom, the capital in the plains was more influenced by the style of Central Arabia and the recent British presence. Thus, we often see the citizens of Hobeika wearing Western military outfits combined with their own traditional white robes and head-dress.
“I’ve done over 80 movies in my career, including big productions like Zorro and Evita, but never in my life have I been on a set like the one we had for Hobeika. It was extraordinarily beautiful. People are going to want to visit this city. Every little detail was so realistic. It helps enormously when you are doing a scene when you are able to become oblivious to the cameras because everything seems so real. As an actor, you really do feel you have become that person at that particular time in history.” – Antonio Banderas
It is perhaps the kingdom of Hobeika which provides “Black Gold” with its most spectacular sets. The highly skilled Tunisian craftsmen and designers constructed temporary sets such as the ramparts of a desert fortress in the southern Tunisian desert near Tozeur and an Arabian town with its main square and streets on the Empire Studios back lot near the Tunisian city of Hammamet.
Originally built in 2000 by Tarak Ben Ammar as a replica of Ancient Rome, Empire Studios was transformed for “Black Gold” into a magical world of Arabian souks, palaces and mashrabiyas.
On December 17, 2010, a young market vendor by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid to protest at his mistreatment by corrupt local police and the general lack of opportunity in the country. For days afterwards, Bouazizi desperately clung to life in a hospital bed, his badly-burnt body completely covered in bandages. He would eventually pass away two weeks later on January 4th. Bouazizi’s actions had been a desperate cry for change. Little did he know that he would soon become the symbol and catalyst for historic change amongst the youth of Tunisia, and the Arab world at large.
Small protests emerged almost immediately after news of Bouazizi’s case came to light. At first, Tunisian authorities attempted a brutal crackdown, shooting at demonstrators and killing dozens. The confirmation that Bouazizi had indeed died from his injuries saw the protests spread across Tunisia and become an unshakeable national uprising calling for freedom, dignity and jobs. The Jasmin Revolution, as it would come to be known around the world, was in the air. Few on the set of “Black Gold” could have imagined they were about to witness history in the making with their own eyes.
“It was unbelievable to see the events that happened here, how fast it all went. The first thing we felt was the strength and courage of the Tunisian people taking to the streets even when they knew they were going to be repressed to fight for a better future.” – Antonio Banderas
For Tarak Ben Ammar, whose own uncle Habib Bourguiba had been the first president of an independent Tunisia, the onset of the revolution was both inspiring on a personal level as well as a logistical challenge given the safety of the cast and crew were his responsibility.
“Who predicted there would be an Arab revolution? History is always more real than any politician can dream of. The events happening before us for real inspired the actors. They were living political moments in Arab history and at the same time portraying a crucial moment in Arab history in the Arabian Peninsula when those Emirs were confronted with the political decisions having to do with oil, Islam and foreigners. We filmed the scene where Nesib has to give up his throne to his son-in-law only days after Ben Ali gave up his authority in Tunisia. It was incredible and something that stays with you and I think you’ll feel it on the screen.” – Producer, Tarak Ben Ammar
Ultimately, the production would only be delayed by a mere four days in Tunisia, with all the cast and crew returning within days of Ben Ali’s flight to finish the remaining scenes scheduled there. When Jean-Jacques Annaud called cut for the final time in Tunisia, it was a highly charged and emotional moment for all involved.
“I felt I was in the right place at the right moment. I felt something so strong which you can’t really explain. I saw people taking back their respect and breaking free.” – Tahar Rahim