Does the news of the killings of the United States ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members belong in an update for cinephiles? Yes, I would argue, and not just because it’s a film (of sorts) that’s triggered the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi.
Sam Bacile, 56, an Israeli-American real-estate developer in California, raised about $5 million from around 100 Jewish donors to shoot a two-hour feature, Innocence of Muslims, over the course of three months during the summer of 2011 with 59 actors and a crew of 45.
The AP: “The film claims Muhammad was a fraud. An English-language 13-minute trailer on YouTube shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Muhammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons.”
A consultant on the film, Steve Klein, told Bacile, “You’re going to be the next Theo van Gogh,” referring, of course, to the Dutch filmmaker whose 2004 film Submission, written by the Somali-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, angered Islamists. One of them, Mohammed Bouyeri gunned the filmmaker down while he was bicycling to work on November 2, 2004.
The trailer for Innocence of Muslims was posted on YouTube in July, but few took notice until someone—Bacile claims not to know who—dubbed it into Arabic. That’s when it went viral, thanks to an Egyptian-American Coptic activist, Morris Sadek, an ally of Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida who made a public show of burning copies of the Koran last year. Sadek sent out an email newsletter announcing that Jones would be screening Innocence of Muslims, an Egyptian politician picked up on the news and publicly denounced Jones and the film, and a scene was broadcast on Egyptian television.
As word spread to Libya, Bacile went into hiding, though he’s still giving interviews by phone, claiming, “Islam is a cancer, period,” and so on.
The awful and groundless killings of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staff members are naturally of far greater consequence than any issues raised specific to the ongoing evolution of cinema. As President Obama has said of Stevens: “Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya’s transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice.”
And for all the alarming factors in this complex crisis, I’m almost ashamed to admit that one in particular has leapt out, grabbed my attention and won’t let go: $5 million. Innocence of Muslims is not some backyard home video, and this is not a story about the potentially dangerous downside of the democratization of film production and distribution, an otherwise positive development driven by the ever-decreasing costs of digital technology. At least not directly.
Bacile’s budget is several times that of many independent films that have run the festival circuit, scored awards, and played in theaters before their second lives on silver discs or VOD. And yet, while the threshold’s been lowered for these films, there’s no way Innocence of Muslims could have crossed it. There is a system, an organism that we call cinema, the contours of which, abstract as they are, seem just a tad more defined today. Because, while we know very little about Bacile at this point, we can probably assume he never tried to take Innocence down the traditional route (or at least what passes for “traditional” at this moment), that is, to submit it to festivals or screen it for buyers, and so on. And we can also probably assume that, if he had, the system, the corpus would have rejected it. That there can be such a thing as a true outsider has me pondering a question we might want to devote a little more attention to. Not the eternal and ever-vital one, “What is cinema?,” but rather, “Who is cinema?”
Updates, 9/13: As reporters dig into the story behind the film, now most often referred to as Muslim Innocence, they’re discovering that most of the “facts” and “figures” ticked off in that skeletal timeline above are way, way off, to say the least. At the Atlantic Wire, Conner Simpson‘s posted a comprehensive yet succinct roundup of reports appearing over the past 24 hours or so, and in brief: Sam Bacile is probably Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian with a possible history of bank fraud; it’s quite possible that the feature-length film actually exists and that it was even screened in a “faded Hollywood movie house” several months ago; the budget—the number that caught my eye—was nowhere near $5 million, but instead, closer to $100K (which, ultimately, has little bearing on the “impertinent question” this whole affair has led me to raise); the cast and crew claim they were misled as to the nature of the project, and they’re furious.
“Isn’t it obvious this is an inflammatory hoax?” asks Roger Ebert. “Isn’t it transparently clear that this whole affair was intended to offend Muslims and stir up trouble?” The answer to the first question may turn out to be elusive; as for the second, though, yes, whatever it is that Nakoula or Bacile or a producer going by the name of Jimmy Israel (?!) have actually done.
The film they claim to have made “shares ideas with a growing transnational movement that preaches hatred of the Islamic faith and seeks to exacerbate tensions between Islam and the West,” writes Matt Duss for Salon. “For this movement, fomenting unrest, hatred and conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims is a feature, not a bug. Last year, a Center for American Progress report, Fear, Inc. (which I co-authored), described the links between a number of Islamophobic scholars and activists in the U.S., and the donors behind them. Whoever Bacile turns out to be… it will be very surprising if there is not some overlap between the funders of his film, and the activists and donors we examine in our report.”
We should add that the attack in Libya may have had little or nothing to do with the film. From a story in this morning’s Guardian: “U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton blamed the killings on ‘a small and savage group.’ CNN reported a senior U.S. official saying the assault was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and that those responsible used the protests as cover. The fact that a rocket-propelled grenade was used is cited as evidence.”
And, as I post this update: “Protesters have forced their way into the compound of the US embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, according to numerous reports.”
As more details become known, the story behind the film-slash-scam is beginning to take shape. For the Guardian, Max Blumenthal lays out the sequence of events and fills us in a bit on just who Nakoula, Klein, Sadek, and their allies are. It’s not pretty: “A group of fringe extremists had proven that with a little bit of money and an unbelievably cynical scam, they could shape history to fit their apocalyptic vision.”
Update, 9/17: Neil Gaiman has posted a letter from Anna Gurji, who appears in the film: “There was no mention EVER by anyone of MUHAMMAD and no mention of religion during the entire time I was on the set. I am hundred percent certain nobody in the cast and nobody in the US artistic side of the crew knew what was really planned for this ‘Desert Warrior’…. It’s painful to see how our faces were used to create something so atrocious without us knowing anything about it at all. It’s painful to see people being offended with the movie that used our faces to deliver lines (it’s obvious the movie was dubbed) that we were never informed of, it is painful to see people getting killed for this same movie, it is painful to hear people blame us when we did nothing but perform our art in the fictional adventure movie that was about a comet falling into a desert and tribes in ancient Egypt fighting to acquire it, it’s painful to be thought to be someone else when you are a completely different person.”