DUBAI: When director John Slattery first visited Morocco, the familiarity was jarring - and as removed from the images of an exotic Orient conjured up by Hollywood as possible.
That dichotomy between the representation and the reality of Morocco drives Slattery's charming paean to a country he clearly loves and makes "Casablanca, Mon Amour" a thoughtful rejoinder to U.S. popular culture.
Two young Moroccans spend three weeks travelling their native country, filming what they see on a digital camera while passing by studios and locations that have formed the backdrop for many Hollywood blockbusters, an industry Morocco has cultivated.
The film is spliced with shots of endearingly bemused or nervous ordinary people giving their thoughts to the camera about Hollywood and its global stars, as well as clips from classics such as "Casablanca" featuring off-the-cuff anti-Arab slurs like "you can't trust them" and "they all look alike".
"We had the idea of going on this trip and to be this stupid American film crew going to make this traditional movie using Morocco, but we wanted to subvert that," Slattery said after a screening at the Dubai international film festival this week.
"There was not really a script but the trip was their trip and so wherever they went we followed them. So that way they were really directing the film."
Shot by Hassan, who narrates the road trip in French, the images shift from scenes of daily life caught on camera, to his comically testy relationship with his travelling companion Abdel, to a troupe they stumble upon in Meknes that plays traditional Moroccan "malhoun" music.
Hassan, a real-life film school student at the time, is using the road trip for a class project, while Abdel wants to visit a dying uncle on the other side of the country.
Slattery includes footage from Moroccan television from the Marrakech film festival in which comic actor Bashar Skeirej declares that "a country without its own art will never have a history".
It's a subtle suggestion that the government should do more to promote domestic film rather than just rent out landscapes for Hollywood misrepresentation.
Morocco has formed the backdrop for a fictionalised Orient in "Ishtar", doubled as Abu Dhabi in the "Sex in the City 2" and been various distant planets in Star Wars films.
"National cinemas in many countries are being destroyed or have been destroyed because of this massive power of marketing that is Hollywood," said Slattery, a California-based American of Irish origin. "They destroy little films, they destroy the possibility for little stories."
The film, a labour of love that took Slattery seven years to complete, borrows from the book "Reel Bad Arabs", author Jack Shaheen's study of Hollywood's anti-Arab stereotypes. Its title references Alain Resnais's 1959 French New Wave classic "Hiroshima, Mon Amour".
"(When) I would say 'Morocco', people would say 'were you scared', or a polite 'what was that like?'," Slattery said, recounting reactions in the United States when he would talk about his first experiences as a peace corps volunteer.
"There was that whole category of fear in the responses, or 'Morocco, you must have seen Lawrence of Arabia', or 'Blackhawk Down'! - all these film titles. That stuck with me, this fear and movies were the two references for Morocco."
Yet Slattery's first day in the North African country could not have been more mundane, he said.
A colleague whisked him off to a rural home near Rabat where he met farmers who reminded him of Ireland.
"This guy opens (his door) in a tweed jacket that was all torn up. This is how these old farmers dress in Ireland, and his hands were all calloused and dirty. It just felt very familiar to me," Slattery said.
"His grandmother had a television hooked up to a car battery for electricity. I spent the weekend there, hanging out with these people, cutting hay and stuff, and I just thought 'this is Ireland'."