“Our prophet had 61 wives — 11 at the same time. He even had a girlfriend!” That’s the opening line, delivered poorly by a man almost definitely in brown-face makeup, of the fourteen-minute YouTube trailer for a D-list production called Innocence of Muslims. From total Internet obscurity, the video has spread wildly around the Arab world, leading to clashes at American embassies in Egypt and Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three of his staff were killed in a rocket attack on Tuesday night. The film is being tied to Florida pastor Terry Jones, the publicity-hungry asshole of Koran-burning infamy, but Jones jumped on the flaming bandwagon well into Innocence’s long, strange trip.
The movie was reportedly written, directed, produced, and put on YouTube by Sam Bacile, a 52-year-old Israeli-American real estate developer living in California. “Islam is a cancer,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “The movie is a political movie. It’s not a religious movie.” The two-hour disaster was filmed, he said, for $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors over three months last year. Bacile is now said to be in hiding.
But amid conflicting reports about Bacile’s age and the lack of any online trail or confirmation of his identity, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic reports that the film’s creator is “not Israeli, and most likely not Jewish, as has been reported, and that the name is, in fact, a pseudonym.” According to a Christian activist who worked on the movie, “I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”
In addition, On the Media points out the suspicious fact that “seemingly every reference to the religion of Islam in the trailer is dubbed over in post production,” meaning that not only is Bacile a cipher, but the entire clip, and its unbelievable $5 million pricetag, could be a sham. The movie may not exist at all beyond the trailer, which might not have been filmed as the anti-Islam product the world is currently fighting over. While its origins remain questionable, its consequences are already very real.
Sure enough, after nearly a day of confusion, CNN has published a statement allegedly written on behalf of those who worked on the video. “The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer. We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose,” the statement reads. “We are shocked by the drastic re-writes of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred.” (Update: Gawker spoke to an actress who believed the movie she was filming was about an Egyptian 2,000 years ago named “Master George.”)
The trailer, which is amateurish and offensive, was put online in July, but did not pick up serious steam until a version dubbed in Arabic was added, the New York Times reports in its detailed, and yet still incomplete, tracing of the video’s origins. Then things got messy.
Members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community drew attention to the clip, stirring anger in Muslim opponents, one of whom, Sheikh Khaled Abdalla, then screened a scene from the film on Egyptian television, in which Muhammad calls a donkey “the first Muslim animal.” The prophet is also portrayed, the Times notes, “as a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.” That was more than enough for the Egyptian media — and Terry Jones — to run with.
In allegiance with the Copts, Jones, who had nothing to do with creating the film and may not have even known about it before last week, started singing its praises to the heavens, insisting it’s “an American production, not designed to attack Muslims but to show the destructive ideology of Islam.”
“It’s Just a Stupid Movie!” the ever-glib New York Post declared on its front page today. But stupid as it may be, rumors about the film continue to metastasize. An Egyptian blogger reported that amid the confusion about the movie’s provenance, one group of fundamentalist Muslims was “calling for another huge protest at the embassy of Netherlands, demanding its closure because the Dutch government is producing an insult film against Islam.” Others are happy to stoke the idea that the clip is more like Avatar in America than a ukelele cover of “Gangnam Style” — little-seen and not at all representative. Jones, meanwhile, now the proud figurehead of the dangerous and already deadly viral movement, plans to screen the movie for as long as people will pay attention to him.
Update: CNN is now reporting, citing “U.S. sources,” that the attack on the Libyan consulate “was planned in advance, and the attackers used the protest outside the consulate as a diversion.”
This post has been updated throughout.