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The Dictator comes to Sevilla

September 1, 2011 – 8:00 am

Plaza de España, magically transformed into a Middle Eastern dictator's palace, complete with gold domes, and logo on gates and statues. The plinth, which covers the fountain, will hold a statue of the dictator to be pulled down, a la Hussein. You can see them filming on the balcony.

He recently rode a camel down a New York street, and carried around a baby goat, while making his new film. He wrestled naked with another man, and chased Pamela Anderson around a car park while shouting a marriage proposal at her in a previous movie, Borat. As Ali G, he made fools of politicians and celebrities around the world.

Now, Sacha Baron Cohen has turned Plaza de España into an evil Middle Eastern dictator’s palace, complete with gold-domed entrance and fleet of vehicles, from armoured cars to luxury sports models. The British comedian and actor, best known for his white would-be rapper from Enfield, is in Seville to film scenes for his new movie, El Dictador.

On Wednesday local newspapers carried a photo of Baron Cohen – dressed for his role in a white uniform embellished with a colourful (and ridiculously large) chequerboard of medals, and sporting a bushy black beard – shaking hands with the city’s mayor, Juan Ignacio Zoido. The backdrop was Plaza de España. I can see that particular shot ending up as one of the new mayor’s collection of “my celeb mates” framed photographs adorning the wall of his office.

The film is about “an Arabic dictator”, in other words Saddam Hussein. The character’s name is Aladeen, and his fictional state is Fedijah (pron Fed-ee-yah). The screenplay is loosely based on a romantic novel about an amiable dictator, Zabibah and the King, published anonymously in 2000 – it is thought to be thinly-disguised pro-Hussein propaganda. But it is very timely with events in Libya, and the frantic search for Colonel Gaddafi.

On Monday morning they did aerial shots of the Plaza, while that evening hundreds of extras milled around in the Plaza performing a dance for their adored leader. On Tuesdays extras could be seen in groups, holding placards in Arabic and English (“Game Over” and “I Hate Aladeen”) and pictures of “the dictator” being hung from a rope, part of a demonstration against him which also sees a statue being pulled down (to be added later with CGI) from a granite plinth, which has been built over the famous fountain, Plaza de España’s centrepiece.

Turbaned character on bridge - note the palm trees added for that extra desert effect, and the flags up on the roof.

The action also includes an (unsuccessful) assassination attempt, after which Aladeen is secretly replaced by a goatherd, and must rebuild his life in New York. This is not a serious political film, in case you hadn’t already guessed. His troop of 13 bodyguards are all women. And not ugly ones either, judging by the actress I spoke to.

One of the Dictator's bodyguards; her beret has the fictional country's official symbol and colours.

Statue, gold domes and flag all add the appropriate level of megolamaniac ostentation.

Aladeen’s palace is the buildings of Plaza de España (closed to tourists for the three days of filming) – its roof now boasts a number of green-and-red fictional Fedijan flags, which also appear on the newly added gateposts, with palm trees by the canal to add to the desert oasis look. The palace’s entrance has gold domes and the dictator’s national symbol, two crossed scimitars, on its gates, which also appear on the doors of his vehicle, a blingy gold-painted Hummer-like Dartz Kombat.

The Dictator's wheels. Say no more.

Other vehicles in the dictator’s fleet include a camouflage-painted tank, armoured personnel carrier, several pick-ups and all-terrainers, a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Bentley and a Rolls-Royce. All of these drew fascinated stares, and plenty of clicking cameras and panning videos, from curious tourists and locals alike, when I visited yesterday afternoon.

Mini-tank, one of the fleet of vehicles used in the filming.

The film company had placed posters near the plaza stating, in both English and Spanish, that “Paramount Pictures is filming in this area. Your presence here constitutes your consent to be filmed for motion picture and commercial purposes. If you do not wish to be in such filming but need to be in the area, please make yourself known to us.” They were filming on the main balcony while I was there – what looked from far away to be a scene between Aladeen and a lady, though don’t quote me on that – but I don’t think the little dot in the distance will come out (striped top, curly red hair, sunglasses, just in case).

Sacha Baron Cohen filming a scene on the central balcony of Plaza de España.

Other members of the film’s cast, whose English-language title is Finchley Dreams, include English stalwart Ben Kingsley and starlet-of-the-moment Megan Fox. Like Borat and Bruno, this movie is directed by Larry Charles, who was quoted in the local press saying that Seville is “one of the best places in the world”, and that he’d “like to film here again”. His PR certainly briefed him well on how to grease up to the locals.

Sadly, I didn’t get to spot any of the actors, but it was interesting all the same – the film set buzz, the posh vans whizzing past the barriers into Plaza de España, the people in their “Finchley Dreams” T-shirts running around with their walkie-talkies, the man constantly polishing the gold mega-car, the announcements: “Quiet please! This is going to be a long take.”

Never one to miss a trick, Zoido has suggested to Charles that they hold the premiere of the film here in Seville, as happened with the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz action flick Knight and Day. Charles responded enthusiastically, saying it was “a fantastic idea” if they do it “in Plaza de España and with a huge screen”.

So there you have it: Seville, preferred shooting location for Hollywood’s top movies; Plaza de España has already appeared in classics such as Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia.

Today, shooting moves to San Pablo airport, and then to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. It is estimated that the filming will generate about one million euros of sorely-needed revenue for the city of Seville. The release date of the movie is set for May next year. I can’t wait!

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