Arts, Culture & Media

Photographer captures images of movie sets preserved in African desert sands

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A photo from a series called "Every World's a Stage" by Ra di Martino shows a man begging on an abandoned Star Wars set in Morocco. (Photo courtesy of Ra di Martino.)

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you might be looking at the photo at left and wondering — “Hey, isn’t that one of those moisture vaporators from the Skywalker farm there by that man who is begging?”

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You’d be right.

Star Wars is only one of the many big budget films that have gone to various North African locations over the years to create a certain feel, a particular sense of place. In the case of Star Wars, parts of Tunisia and Morocco stood in for Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home world, a desert-swept planet with two suns. And swamp rats.

See more of di Martino's photos at TheWorld.org.

But here’s the thing. After the movie people packed up and left, the film sets stayed behind. And because of the dry, desert climate, they stayed and stayed, slowly rusting away or being swallowed by sand. Italian visual artist Ra di Martino wanted to photograph these sets. She’s not the first, but her goal was not necessarily to say something about them, but about the ways we remember them.

“Star Wars was one of the first films I watched. I must’ve been around four years old,” di Martino said. “I really loved it. And I watched it many times. You know, it was an eerie and well-shot film that actually left a lot in me. It was a fun film, but it had beautiful images.”

Particularly those desert shots.

They created an entirely new world. George Lucas went to locations across North Africa, to the very edge of the desert, to have the sets built.

And di Martino, a visual artist, was kicking around on Google Earth a few years back, when she spotted something that looked familiar in some tourist photos that had been uploaded.

It was the old Star Wars sets — well, parts of them — still there in the North African desert.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, because obviously it seemed incredible that there was some actual, real materials left from such a big film that made a lot of my memories from childhood.”

Di Martino knew the sets have been photographed before, and fans know all about the Star Wars “ruins.”

“I just find it very poetic to see these trashy, cheap materials in the middle of nowhere, to see how these ruins decayed in such a fast way compared to our memory of them,” di Martino said.

So, a few years ago, she embarked on a series of trips to Tunisia and Morocco to photograph the old film sets.

She found the house Luke Skywalker lived in. It’s in Tunisia, and it was falling apart, just a few miles from Algerian border.

In Morocco, she shot the picture of the man begging in the ruins of one Star Wars set. The film grossed hundreds of millions of dollars.

Since she did her photo series, certain sands have shifted.

One set that had been covered, and then uncovered, in sand storms has, in fact, been almost covered again.

But, thanks to crowd-funding, Star Wars fans “refurbished” the Skywalker house.

Di Martino says it proves her point.

“These memories are so strong in us that we don’t really realize how much they formed us. And if you think adult people, as their main hobby, go and refurbish something like this, which is so useless, well," she said. "No, but I can understand it. They probably had lots of fun, you know?”

Meanwhile, she wryly notes, in her native Italy … the ruins of Pompeii are crumbling, and little effort is being made to save them.

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