x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Innocence of Muslims: the cheap shot heard around the world

The mystery surrounding the people behind the film that has inflamed the Muslim world only gets deeper as time goes on.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is escorted from his home by Los Angeles County Sheriff's officers on September 15.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is escorted from his home by Los Angeles County Sheriff's officers on September 15.

Far from the incandescent golden orb at the heart of Hollywood - so distant, in fact, that its ebbing rays can barely penetrate the gloom - a casting call for actors was placed in July last year on Craigslist, the classified advertising website.

For those unfamiliar with Craigslist, or, indeed, the desperate, fraying outer edges of show business, this is about as far as you can get from clutching a golden statue on Oscar night.

As a solid commercial venture, the film's prospects looked decidedly limited. The project's director was listed as "Alan Roberts", the alias for a low-budget chancer called Robert Brownell, whose previous credits included The Happy Hooker Goes To Hollywood, which improbably starred a presumably down on their luck Batman (Adam West) and Sgt Bilko (Phil Silvers).

Nor was there much comfort to be gleaned from the section of the listing marked "compensation". It stated bluntly: "no pay". Still, there were enough of those whose almost total lack of thespian talent is matched only by a delusional conviction that they have what it takes to fill a cast list that included "George", described as "a Middle Eastern warrior leader, charismatic", "Condalisa ... attractive, successful and strong-willed" and other bit parts, including "various Middle East types, bearded".

With a working title of Desert Warrior, the film was described as a "historical drama set in the Middle East" with an ambitious shooting schedule of 18 days, using both studio and backlot locations.

As the world now knows, Desert Warrior was the cover for Innocence of Muslims, a crude and ineptly constructed libel of the Prophet Mohammed. Based on a lengthy, if incoherent, fragment released on the internet last month, the film looks like what old Hollywood would call "schlock".

Almost everything about Desert Warrior/Innocence of Muslims seems comically bad, even down to the detail that its director is listed as living in Tarzana, the Los Angeles suburb named after the creator of the rope-swinging jungle hero who once lived there.

There is nothing amusing, though, about the murder of the US ambassador to Libya, nor the rising death toll that, at the time of writing, may include at least 12 people killed by a suicide bomber on a Kabul bus, nor the desperate attempts by authorities in a growing list of countries in the Muslim world to keep a lid on the violent protests sparked by this offensive film.

When the story broke last week, it came with a narrative that at first almost everyone, including a number of prominent news organisations, accepted at face value.

The film, the story went, was the work of one "Sam Bacile", described as a Californian property developer of Israeli extraction who had raised the US$5 million (Dh18.4m) budget from a secret list of 100 Jewish donors.

"Bacile" was interviewed several times from a "secret location", the Associated Press reported, noting that his "solemn voice" was "thickly accented". Terry Jones, the crackpot Florida "pastor" whose idea of recreation is threatening to burn copies of the Quran, was also said to have backed the project in some vague, unspecified way.

Even the briefest of views of the 14-minute YouTube trailer revealed that the $5m budget had been overstated by at least three zeros.

The poorly attached fake beards many of the male cast members were required to wear could not disguise acting not so much wooden as catatonic, while the fumbling efforts of the technical department resulted in actors whose feet floated several inches above the stirring green screen back drop of mystic desert sands.

Closer attention also revealed that the most incendiary lines - including everything referring to the Prophet, had been badly overdubbed by a clumsy operative in a gloomy post-production suite. Soon, members of the cast, aghast and appalled, began to emerge with their own stories.

A young Georgian actress called Anna Gurji disclosed that she had been told the project was a "fictional adventure movie about a comet falling into a desert and tribes in ancient Egypt fighting to acquire it".

Another cast member, Cindy Lee Garcia, claimed "the actors were deceived. My voice was dubbed and it wasn't even my voice." Instead of Mohammed, she revealed, her lines were addressed to "Master George".

On the website of The Atlantic magazine, the reporter Jeffrey Goldberg was the first to raise doubts about the identity of "Sam Bacile". Within days, attention had switched to a man named Nakoula Nakoula, whose middle name, Basseley, suggested he might be the elusive "Bacile".

We now know Nakoula is neither Jewish nor Israeli, but an Egyptian-American of Coptic origin. A mobile phone number used by "Bacile" tied back to his home address, where it now seems some of the film was shot.

After being interviewed by Los Angeles police, Nakoula told them he had written the script in federal prison where he was serving 21 months and five years probation for a financial fraud that included opening bank accounts using stolen identities. He is said to have told officers that he raised the cash (approximately $50,000 [Dh183,650]) mostly from his wife's family in Egypt.

This was not his first brush with the law. In 1997 he had been arrested in Los Angeles when a search of his car unearthed $45,000 (Dh165,280) stowed in a paper bag and all the ingredients required by an unscrupulous home pharmacist to brew up a batch of the drug methamphetamine. Convicted, he was sentenced to a year in prison, then sent back to jail in 2002 for a probation violation.

Authorities questioned him again last weekend to see if he had broken his parole once more. Under the terms of his probation, Nakoula may not use a computer nor access the internet without permission from his supervising officers. His constitutional rights under the First Amendment will not protect him here.

And now, as they say, the plot thickens. The Daily Beast, the current affairs website, has questioned why Nakoula was originally given such a light sentence for drug-making, given the severity of the case.

In fact, the Beast reported, Nakoula served just two days in prison, with the rest of his sentence mitigated to probation. One possibility is that he had turned informant.

At the time, America's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had just launched Operation Mountain Dew, an investigation into methamphetamine drug crime in the Midwest. Many of those involved in the ring were of Middle Eastern origin, and investigators began to suspect that some of the profits were being used to fund militant groups, specifically Hizbollah. The lightness of Nakoula's sentence appears to be linked to information he volunteered to the DEA.

Much remains unclear, motive included. In the past, Nakoula is said to have made derogatory comments about Islam and been upset about the treatment of Egypt's Coptic minority, but the path from petty con man and drug dealer to rabble-rousing bigot is not obvious.

As for the film, despite claims that it was once shown to a near empty cinema in Hollywood, there is no cast-iron evidence that, beyond the trailer, it even fully exists. The consequences of millions believing otherwise, sadly, are only too real.

James Langton is The National's news features editor.