Watching the newest “Star Wars” installment “The Force Awakens,” viewers may have noticed the beautiful, mystic and mysterious setting of the last scene. The camera pulls back to pan over a giant rock, seemingly jutting out of the water in an unearthly way, fit for the supernatural and otherworldly movie franchise.
The landscape of the last scene was not the result of some movie magic, an excellent set team and a few green screens, as many may have thought. In the Star Wars universe it is called “Ahch-To,” but it is actually a real place: Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Ireland with a history dating back to the 6th century. The decision to allow filming there has been hotly debated in the Irish press since before “The Force Awakens” even premiered, and hasn’t stopped since. In addition to concerns over incidents involving ancient masonry, the anticipated influx of “Star Wars” related tourism has many nervous.
Ireland is not the only home of contested filming locations, however. As a result of the recent lift on the United States’ economic embargo in Cuba, production teams have already begun filming on the Caribbean island. The first American television show to do so is the Netflix series “House of Lies,” which filmed in Havanna back in January.
A New York Times article on “House of Lies” notes that any production team that wishes to film in Cuba must go through the Cuban government first. This leads to some significant changes in scripts: in some cases, critiques of the Cuban government are watered-down in order to get approved. Furthermore, securing a filming permit can take a long time due to the bureaucracy of state-funded arts and entertainment institutions such as the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry.
At the moment, concerns over filming in Cuba largely revolve around the content of films and their effect on the political process. As of yet, neither the Cuban government nor Cuban filmmakers are concerned about American production teams’ potential detriment to the land or culture itself, but rather are hopeful that this will bring an influx of capital. Cuba, and Havanna in particular, is known for its overwhelming collection of classic American cars, which in itself has become emblematic of the nation.
The same cannot be said for locations like Skellig Michael, where the outcry over filming comes from the destruction to ancient historical sites as well as the natural environment of the area. Not only is Skellig Michael home to ruins of a 6th century monastery, but it is also a preservation site for endangered birds. Leaders of nonprofits, such as Birdwatch Ireland, noted that even the helicopters bringing supplies and equipment to the island have been a detriment: an article in The Irish Times said that one flight blew kittiwake chicks off the island and into the water, where they were eaten by gulls. Despite what the production announcement teaser for Episode VIII released last week implies, it has been reported that the filming of future “Ahch-To” scenes might be relocated (not that this will help with tourism concerns).
The choice of filming location brings an even greater complexity to areas such as Cuba and Skellig Michael, where the political, social and cultural histories of the places make them contested territories. Conflicts and concerns such as these put the entertainment industry into a larger context, one in which these productions do not exist within a vacuum.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons