A 14-minute movie trailer fueled angry mobs of demonstrators to attack the U.S. embassy in Cairo and, as some believe, may have triggered the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Tuesday night. The movie is said to have been written, produced and directed by a ‘Sam Bacile,’ a purported California real estate developer, according to news reports. However, media organizations worldwide have been unable to verify the identity of the producer.
The trailer, and reportedly a full version of the movie titled “The Innocence of Muslims,” portray the Muslim prophet Mohammad in a manner demonstrators say and many others agree that can be interpreted only as blasphemous. But the YouTube clip provides few clues about who stands behind its production. All that is known for certain is that it is fanning the flames of a new wave of anti-American protests that have now even spread to Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.
Here’s what media has unearthed thus far:
Who is Sam Bacile and who are his backers?
According to the Associated Press‘s original reporting by Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, Bacile described himself as an Israeli filmmaker. He is said to have talked by phone to the reporter from an undisclosed location. Bacile reportedly went into hiding when the trailer to his film went viral on YouTube (more than 600,000 views as of this writing).
Bacile said he raised $5 million among 100 Jewish donors, but would not identify them. Is he really a Jew? Many doubt it. The government of Israel denies that Sam Bacile, if one exists under that name, is an Israeli citizen.
Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic tweeted:
“I would love to know more about Mr. Sam Bacile, whom no Jew I know has ever heard of, and his 100 mysterious backers.”
Another prominent Jewish writer, John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine said that, “’Bacile’ as a Jewish name is entirely new to me. Doesn’t mean it can’t be one.”
Mohajer also interviewed a man named Steve Klein, who said he served as a consultant for the movie. Klein said Bacile is concerned for the safety of family members who live in Egypt. When questioned further by the reporter, Bacile would not comment on that information. Mohajer also wrote that Bacile claims to know enough Arabic to affirm the accuracy of the Arabic version of the trailer viewed by the protestors.
Other sources have noted that that the name Basile, Bassilly or Bacile is a surname used in several Middle Eastern countries. In Egypt, it is a surname used by some Christian families.
The Associated Press more recently reported conducting a face-to-face interview with a man answering the cell phone of ‘Bacile.’ He identified himself as Associate Producer Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old who allegedly was the film company’s production manager and a Coptic Christian. AP also reported that Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California, was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution and was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.
The Wall Street Journal wrote:
“The movie has been promoted in the U.S. by conservative Coptic Christians, including Morris Sadek, who runs a small group called the National American Coptic Assembly. ‘The violence that it caused in Egypt is further evidence of how violent the religion and people are and it is evidence that everything in the film is factual,’ Mr. Sadek said in a telephone interview from his Washington home.”
Coptic and other religious leaders around the world denounced the film and its portrayal of Islam.
The Wall Street Journal’s Matt Bradley and Dion Nissenbaum reported that Bacile called Islam a “cancer” and that “The movie is a political movie. It’s not a religious movie.” In Cairo, protesters said they rallied to the embassy at the prompting of Islamist Facebook groups and hard-line Salafi preachers who frequently preach on Islamist satellite channels.
The AP’s Mohajer wrote:
“The film claims Muhammad was a fraud. The 14-minute trailer of the movie… posted on the website YouTube in an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Mohammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons.”
Is there more to the movie than the trailer?
A big question remains: is the film just a 14-minute trailer or is there more to it?
The Times of Israel published an account of an interview with Bacile who was reached at a California telephone number. Bacile reportedly told the Times of Israel this is the start of a film series that will be 200 hours in length.
“The main problem is I am the first to put on the screen someone who is portraying Mohammad. It makes them mad,” Bacile reportedly said. “But we have to open the door. After 9/11 everybody should be in front of the judge, even Jesus, even Muhammad.”
Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Christian known in the United States for his anti-Islam views, told the Times of Israel that he is promoting the video on his website and certain TV stations.
National Public Radio’s analysis of the reporting increased skepticism about the trailer’s origins and includes more about the film’s ties to controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has attracted Muslim ire in the past.
“When clips of the film were shown on an Egyptian TV program, they were described as being the work of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who has burned Qurans.” Jones, The Wall Street Journal reports, was merely promoting the film, saying he would screen the trailer at his church on September 11.
“The film is not intended to insult the Muslim community, but it is intended to reveal truths about Muhammad that are possibly not widely known,” Jones said in a statement obtained by The Orlando Sentinel.
The full film “Innocence of Muslims” has only been screened in its entirety in public one time, to a nearly empty theater in Los Angeles, according to Associated Press reporter Shaya Tayefe Mohajer.
Bacile reportedly told the Wall Street Journal that he first uploaded the trailer for his film on YouTube in early July. But apparently it had largely escaped attention until recent days, when activists on Twitter pointed to the clip that includes actors in anachronistic costumes and often stumbling in their lines, as well as flimsy sets. Soon thereafter, Egyptian clerics began widely condemning the footage.
Bacile reportedly said the film was shot during three summer months of last year on sets in California and against large painted scenes of deserts and had a cast of 59 performers. None of this has been independently verified despite numerous investigations by media organizations and others.
The Gawker reported interviewing a Bakersfield, California, actress by the name of Cindy Lee Garcia, who said she appeared in “The Innocence of Muslims.” Garcia said she answered a casting call for a movie titled “Desert Warrior.” She added she was shocked by the anti-Muslim content and said many of her lines were later dubbed in by other voices, a claim consistent with professional assessments of the film’s quality.
Although portions of the trailer, according to some observers, look more like a badly produced Monty Python parody, the film’s producers anti-Muslim sentiments seem beyond question. The impact of the film is already being compared to the events surrounding the 2004 production of another film about prophet Muhammad that was produced in the Netherlands and resulted in the death of its producer, Theo Van Gogh.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.