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Africans say 'no deal' to $14 million movie studio

Local South Africans recently refused to sell ancestral land to filmmakers eager for a desert set.

No deal: Local resident Ina Basson reads Desert Star Studio’s 102-page scoping report for turning her people’s ancestral lands into a movie set.

Hannes Thiart

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A filmmaker's dream of building a Hollywood-style studio in the northern part of South Africa has been blocked after a passionate campaign by the local Khoi-San community.

Residents of the remote and desolate town of Pella say they do not care about the millions of dollars promised or the prospect of A-list celebrities flying in on private jets and instead wanted to keep their "sacred" scrubland, which was won in battle by their forefathers.

Desert Star Studios wanted to transform their ancestral lands into a giant studio featuring biblical and cowboy film sets, production offices, stunt tracks, storehouses, and workshops, plus a luxury resort, golf course, and private landing strip.

The consortium planned to spend $14 million on the project which it says would create 18,000 jobs and generate a further $14.2 million income for the area over the next 10 years – a huge sum for a relatively poor province.

A visit to the semi-desert area can see its potential. The flat scrubland nestles between giant mountains under clear blue skies. There are hidden valleys cut by tributaries to the mighty Orange River, and one mountain resembling the doomed Israeli fortress of Masada.

But the filmmakers underestimated the will of the local 5,000-strong population who put the spiritual value of the land over any potential economic gain and nixed the plan last month.

"No money in the world can buy this land," says Ina Basson, secretary of the Pella Community Forum. "It is ours and has sentimental value. Our forefathers fought the Germans for this land and had to battle to keep it. They have spilled blood for the land and for us, and it is not for sale.

"[The producers] said Mel Gibson and Halle Berry would fly in to do movies, and that Tiger Woods would design the golf course," adds Ms. Basson. "We don't care about them. We want to live here."

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