Published September 16, 2011
TATOUINE, TUNISIA – Residents of the town that sprouted the Rebel Alliance in the "Star Wars" saga say they hope their country's own revolution, combined with Friday's Blu-Ray re-release of the classic movies, will bring a much-needed economic boost to this North African nation.
The original 1977 "Star Wars," later given the expanded title of "Episode IV: A New Hope," put this scruffy, sprawling desert oasis on the map when the surrounding region was used for principal photography.
The director, George Lucas, even took Tatouine's name as inspiration for the sandy, twin-sunned planet of lightsaber-wielding hero Luke Skywalker. The spelling and pronunciation are slightly different in the films than in real life: Tatooine ("Tatoo-een") versus Tatouine ("Tat-ween").
Today the town is a casual stop-off point on desert tours for curious French and German tourists and foreign journalists streaming into Libya to cover the fall of yet another toppled Arab dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. But Tunisia, whose own Darth Vader, the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was deposed in February during the first wave of the Arab Spring, has yet to capitalize on its Hollywood heritage.
There are no dedicated tour serving the "Star Wars" sets, which are connected by some 600 miles of poorly-signed, potholed roads and open desert. Four-wheel-drive off-road trips briefly take in the occasional site along the way, such as the subterranean Skywalker homestead at Matmata - once a home for members of the Berber tribe - and the alien-infested Cantina at Adjim on the island of Djerba. The spaceport of Mos Espa was built to scale for "Episode II: Attack of the Clones" in 2000, and the huge set remains intact at Oung Jmel, 24 miles from the southwest town of Tozeur.
"It is time we created a 'Star Wars' industry here. But only for Tunisians," said shopkeeper Zideen Abdul Ras. "Mr Lucas has made billions out of Tatouine. Now, enshallah [god willing], with the fall of our evil "emperor" Ben Ali, it will be our turn."
Many Tatouine residents say they have still not seen any of the six films in the epic saga, first shot here 34 years ago. In the town's few local DVD stores, where bootlegged action and adventure titles are big sellers among the ballooning demographic of under-30 males, no copies of "Star Wars" were even available.
The first Blu-Ray DVD edition of the "Star Wars" saga - all six films - was released in the U.S. on Friday, and went on sale overseas last week. "We hope millions of people will watch the new Star Wars and think of Tunisia and visit us," said Ras, whose two unemployed sons took part in the rebellion in protest at the lack of jobs. "We need foreign money to build our new country. Some explained to me Lucas keeps changing these films, or makes new ones. We also want changes but still want to be proud Tunisians with old traditions."
Lucas has controversially tinkered yet again with his franchise, adding more computer-enhanced scenes to three films in the Blu-Ray release. He is currently working on converting all six films to 3-D format for theaters.