Yesterday, reports swirled about the obscure movie that has incited riots in the Middle East, perhaps culminating in an attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya. But as the day progressed things got murkier and murkier. The Sam Bacile who purportedly directed the film was nowhere to be found. The film itself was suspiciously dubbed, and its funders mysterious. Here’s what we do, and don’t know about the movie, its director, and the resulting violence. Spoiler: it’s weird.
What we thought we knew about Sam Bacile was that he was an Israeli real estate developer from California, who raised about $5 million from 100 Jewish donors to finance a film about the evils of Islam. (That’s what he initially told the Associated Press.) Turns out, all that might be wrong.
First, reporters trying to get in touch with and learn about the Sam Bacile, the purported director and producer of the film, started to wonder whether he was even real. The Huffington Post couldn’t find any evidence of Bacile’s real estate business: he’s not registered in California with a real estate license. Nor did the director have any kind of social media presence prior to the incident.
Sam Klein, a man who everyone is certain is real, was a consultant on the movie. Klein is a “militant Christian activist” from California. Klein claims Bacile is a fake name, and that the man is certainly not Israeli, and perhaps not even Jewish. Klein told the Atlantic:
He said the man who identified himself as Bacile asked him to help make the anti-Muhammad film. When I asked him to describe Bacile, he said: “I don’t know that much about him. I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He’s not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved, Terry Jones (the radical Christian Quran-burning pastor) is not involved. His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he’s Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”
We do know that some very real people were involved in making this movie. Sam Klein, for one. Nakoula Basseley, a Coptic Christian in California with convictions for federal bank fraud has also stepped forward. He told the Associated Press that he ran the company that produced the film. Some wonder whether Basseley posed as Bacile, a claim that Basseley himself denies. The Associated Press writes:
Nakoula denied he had posed as Bacile. During a conversation outside his home, he offered his driver’s license to show his identity but kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley. Records checks by the AP subsequently found it and other connections to the Bacile persona.
So Sam Bacile is almost certainly not this man’s real name. But someone directed this movie, using that name. What do we know about the movie itself? That part is weird too.
After watching the trailer, many started wondering whether the movie itself was even real. Bacile (or someone claiming to be him) was the one who claimed the film cost $5 million and relied on a crew of 45 people, and around 60 actors. Those who actually watched the trailer, however, were suspicious. Buzzfeed compiled a video of all the overdubbed moments and writes:
Among the overdubbed words is “Mohammed,” suggesting that the footage was taken from a film about something else entirely. The footage also suggests multiple video sources — there are obvious and jarring discrepancies among actors and locations.
And the production quality of the film has lead most to question the $5 million figure.
But there’s actually an explanation for the weird overdubbing, which makes this whole thing even stranger. Apparently none of the actors in the movie knew they were making an inflammatory film about Islam. Instead, they were given a script about life in Egypt 2,000 years ago, called Desert Warriors. During filming, Muhammed was called “Master George,” and there were no references at all to Islam. All the references to Muhammed were dubbed over later. Here’s the original casting call:
NOW CASTING SAG and NON SAG ACTORS for “DESERT WARRIOR.” Director Alan Roberts.
Historical desert drama set in Middle East. Indie Feature film shoots 18 days in L.A. in August. Studio and backlot locations.
Male Roles: DR. MATTHEW (Lead): Middle Eastern Pharmacist, 40-50, intelligent, family man; GEORGE (Lead); 40-50, Middle Eastern warrior leader, romantic, charismatic; YOUNG GEORGE (featured) 18-22; PRIEST (featured): 60-70, bearded; ABDO (featured), 60-70, Elder tribe leader; ISRAELI MEN 30-50 (featured); WARRIORS (featured) 18-50, Various Middle Eastern types, bearded.
Female Roles: CONDALISA (featured) 40, attractive, successful, strong willed; HILLARY (featured) 18 but must look younger, petite; innocent; YOUSTINA (featured) 16-18, Daughter of doctor; MIDDLE EASTERN WOMEN (Various Featured Roles) 18-40, attractive, exotic; OLDER WOMAN (featured) 60-70, feisty.
Gawker spoke with one of the actors who responded to that call and acted in the movie, Cindy Lee Garcia, who was totally shocked to see the final product:
“It was going to be a film based on how things were 2,000 years ago,” Garcia said. “It wasn’t based on anything to do with religion, it was just on how things were run in Egypt. There wasn’t anything about Muhammed or Muslims or anything.”
But Garcia knows something about whoever is claiming to be Sam Bacile. She says that the director, Bacile, was on the set the entire shoot. He told the actors the same thing, that he was an Israeli real estate developer, although Garcia was told on the set that he was Egyptian. When she saw the movie, Garcia called Bacile. Buzzfeed again:
“I called Sam and said, ‘Why did you do this?’ and he said, ‘I’m tired of radical Islamists killing each other. Let other actors know it’s not their fault.”
That’s not quite good enough for the 80-member cast. They’ve released a statement separating themselves from the final film. They told CNN:
“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 says. “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.”
So, what does this all mean? Well, we know that Sam Bacile isn’t who he says he is. That this movie was a fake and that the actors and crew were totally deceived.
But the real question is whether or not any of this Sam Bacile speculation matters. Did this movie actually cause the attacks on the Libyan embassy? CNN’s sources say no:
U.S. sources say they do not believe the attacks that killed Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, were in reaction to the online release of a film mocking Islam, CNN’s Elise Labott reports.
“It was not an innocent mob,” one senior official said. “The video or 9/11 made a handy excuse and could be fortuitous from their perspective, but this was a clearly planned military-type attack.”
Earlier intelligence also suggests that the attacks in Benghazi were planned long before the film, and the attackers used the protests against the film as cover. It’s likely that the movie, as bad and offensive as it was, was not the root cause of the attacks. This whole thing might just be a big coincidence.
More from Smithsonian.com:
How an Obscure Video Sparked International Protests
The Struggle Within Islam
A New Crisis for Egypt’s Copts