Innocence of Muslims might be the most consequential movie that doesn't even exist. After a 14-minute YouTube trailer for the purported film sparked a U.S. Embassy–breaching riot in Egypt and at least provided cover for a deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya, a man claiming to be a California-based Israeli real estate developer named Sam Bacile told the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal that he had made the film with $5 million in funding from 100 Jewish donors. It didn't take long before that story started to crumble, leaving "the U.S. and Arab world confronting the possibility that the crisis was triggered, if not conjured, by a cheap trick," says Rory Carroll at Britain's The Guardian. Much mystery and confusion still surrounds this bit of anti-Islam agitprop, but here's a look at what journalists and film mavens have uncovered so far:
What do we know for sure about Innocence of Muslims?
In early July, YouTube user "Sam Bacile" posted his "Muhammed Movie Trailer" on the web, and nobody paid attention. Then, days before the violent protests and attacks on Sept. 11, a version of the trailer dubbed in Arabic appeared on YouTube, and on Sept. 6, Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian in Washington known for anti-Islamic activism, sent journalists worldwide a link to the clip in an email promoting a Sept. 11 screening of the trailer by infamous Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones. The video got nearly a million views and was picked up and aired repeatedly by some TV stations in the Middle East and North Africa.
So the trailer is real. But the movie might not be?
Exactly. There is no known copy of the full movie, only the YouTube trailer, and no record of a movie called Innocence of Muslims being made in California. And the trailer itself is little more than "an incoherent, haphazardly edited set of scenes" that "suggests multiple video sources — there are obvious and jarring discrepancies among actors and locations," says Rosie Gray at BuzzFeed. Also strange: The obvious overdubbing of "every reference to the religion of Islam," says Sarah Abdurrahman at On the Media. Any time an actor says "Mohammed" or "Koran," for example, "the audio recorded during filming is replaced with a poorly executed post-production dub," and you can see the actors' mouths saying something different. Seriously, says David Weigel at Slate, "everything about this movie is a lie."
Is there any evidence suggesting a full movie exists?
Yes. A Los Angeles agency has uncovered a permit for filming a movie called Desert Warriors, and reporters found a 2009 casting call for a "historical Arabian Desert adventure film" of the same name, produced by "Sam Bassiel." A handful of actors have come forward to say they were in the movie — which had nothing to do with Islam when they filmed it. The character of Mohammed was called "Master George" in the script, for example, actress Cindy Lee Garcia tells Gawker. That the director turned the pre-Islam historical drama into a screed on Islam "makes me sick," she added. A statement purported to be from 80 members of the movie's cast and crew also expressed disgust with the producer: "We are 100 percent not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved."
Does anyone claim to have seen the whole movie?
Steve Klein, a collaborator on the film, tells The New York Times that a full version was screened over the summer at a venue "100 yards or so" from Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The AP spoke to a man at the run-down Vine Theatre, about a mile down Hollywood Blvd., who says that Innocence of Muslims ran there for at least a day, arranged by a customer named "Sam." "I got there about a half hour before the movie started and stayed a half hour after it started," Klein tells Bloomberg Businessweek, "and I saw zero — nada, none, no people — go inside."
What do we know about the people behind the movie?
Terry Jones, who says he has only seen the 14-minute trailer, appears to be a bit player. Steve Klein, a California insurance salesman who moonlights as an anti-Muslim activist with ties to the U.S. Coptic community, appears to be more involved. Klein says Bacile is a pseudonym, and that the director is not Jewish but Christian. He says he doesn't know Bacile's real name. Digging a little deeper, the AP found Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Copt with a history of financial fraud who says he helped manage and provide logistics for the film. His aliases in his financial crime spree include Nicola Bacily, Mark Basseley Youssef, and Youssef M. Basseley.
So is Nakoula really "Sam Bacile"?
He denies it, but he is the most likely suspect, according to the AP. Both the AP and The Wall Street Journal traced the cellphone number "Sam Bacile" used to a home near Los Angeles where Nakoula lives. The Journal also points out that the expired casting call lists two producers for the desert-adventure film: Sam Basselly and Nakoula. The fact that a Coptic Christian would try to pass off his anti-Islam movie as a Jewish-Israeli production is "cowardly and despicable," says Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic.
What was the point of Innocence of Muslims?
Klein says the idea was to draw Muslims "who love Osama bin Laden" into the theater with the promise of a sympathetic film — the original title was The Innocence of bin Laden, he says — then "expose all the stuff that Mohammed really did, like murder and pedophilia and stuff like that." That idea may have flopped, he tells The New York Times, but with this YouTube trailer, "we have reached the people we want to reach." And a "small fraction" will "come to understand just how violent Mohammed was." Let's step back a minute, says Slate's Weigel. "How pathetic is it that a production this dingy and low-rate got into the Arab media?" And how cowardly? The Danes who incited riots with their cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed at least "put their art and their names out there." These guys "lied to get a bunch of struggling actors onscreen, made up a new script, then put some scenes on the internet."