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Need a camel? 'Jimmy' can do

For Ahmed Abounouom, no Hollywood request is too outrageous.

August 24, 2008|Allyssa Lee | Special to The Times

WRITER-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff vividly recalls his first visit to Morocco, scouting locations for his global spy thriller "Traitor." "We'd been flying on a plane for something like 15 hours straight," the first-time feature director says. "We landed in Marrakech, and it was 110 degrees in the airport, no AC, and just a sea of people. We're like, it's going to take us two hours to get through customs, and we're just overwhelmed.

"And the next thing we see is this tall, striking figure in an absolutely clean white shirt striding through the crowd, parting everyone, and he kind of waves at us, and says, 'Hey, come with me!' And he just pulls us out of the line, and walks us right past customs."

The Moses figure who parted the crowds and welcomed Nachmanoff and his crew to Morocco was Ahmed Abounouom, but just call him Jimmy. Everybody does. The native Moroccan has made a name for himself and his production company, Dune Films, by serving as the English-speaking go-to guy for movies shooting in the north African country.

Need local extras? A last-minute camel? A venue that can pass as a Yemeni prison? Jimmy's your man. The 56-year-old's resume boasts a number of high-profile projects, including "Babel," "Kingdom of Heaven," "Kundun" and, most recently, Nachmanoff's "Traitor" (in theaters Wednesday), a political thriller about a special ops officer-turned-terrorist (Don Cheadle) who is being tracked by an FBI agent (Guy Pearce).

In movie circles, Abounouom has earned the name Jimmy Fix It, "because whenever it is that someone has a problem, they call Jimmy," he says.

Even as a young boy growing up in Marrakech, Abounouom found a way into the movies. "My father was not able to give me once-a-week money to go to the cinema . . . so I used to sneak into the movies," he recalls. He saw all sorts of films -- American, Arabic -- but his favorites were from Bollywood because they were "very dramatic," he says. "It's a little closer to Moroccan stories of family. We don't know the language, but we can imagine the conversation."

As he grew older, his influences ventured West. "In the '70s, everybody is trying to be like Americans," he says. "I used to be a hippie." Flower-power suited with his afro and second-hand duds, Abounouom was the spitting image of music great Jimi Hendrix -- hence the nickname "Jimmy." He even had a poster of the guitar icon hanging in his room. "People would come and say to my mom, 'Does Mr. Ahmed play the guitar?' " Abounouom recalls. "They think that it's me on the poster."

An unlikely start

In 1988, after years teaching high school math, Abounouom's then wife, an American, was approached by a French casting director to appear as an extra in an upcoming movie. She brought along her husband (who's fluent in French, English and Arabic), and what was supposed to be a small job quickly turned into something bigger. "[The casting director] was having trouble finding smart-looking extras," he says. "So I brought him a lot of Moroccans, my colleagues, and then also a lot of Europeans. Being married to an American, we used to go to a lot of the mixed-marriage or European parties, so we used to know a lot of people."

The casting director was so pleased with Abounouom's efforts that he asked to work with him again the following summer. Abounouom has not taught since.

Back in the late '80s, Morocco was establishing itself as a prime location for movie crews. "People are looking for a lot of places that double as the Middle East, and Morocco is one of the friendliest for film production," explains Nachmanoff. "People [there] start to acquire knowledge of the filmmaking process . . . so the guy that was originally only the coach to the crew suddenly knows how to do some rigging, and before you know it, he comes back on the next film and he's a gaffer."

Similarly, Abounouom went from being an extra to casting and to assistant director and production manager who also dabbles in the art department as well.

He also brought back the name Jimmy. Everybody calls him Jimmy, "even my kids," he says. "It's easier for Europeans [to pronounce] than Ahmed." And he quickly developed a reputation for getting the job done, no matter how far-fetched the request. "I was doing once a commercial for whiskey, and we were trying to re-create Tibet," he recalls of the mountainous shoot. "We had to bring all the work stuff to the top of a high atlas . . . and the director came to me with a big smile and said, 'Can we get camels here?' So I went and got him three camels."

Camels . . . in Tibet? "Yeah, there are no camels in Tibet," he confirms. "But if they want a camel, I'll get them a camel. And they shot it."

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