Tracking the U.S. evangelical right’s involvement in the creation of the provocation-bent movie trailer Innocence of Muslims, which touched off a powderkeg of violent Muslim protest worldwide, leads to a cluster of interlocking affiliations between assorted U.S.-based extremist Christian individuals and organizations. As detailed in my first post about this film, these include Media for Christ, The Way, and right-wing evangelical activists Steve Klein, Pamela Geller, and Terry Jones. That is to say, exemplars of the Republican base.
The byzantine narrative of this film trailer’s genesis and production gets so convoluted that I’m unlikely to get all the facts straight at this stage, but I’ll try my best. Please consider this a preliminary checklist, with all the facts not yet in and some of them disputed and/or dubious. I don’t expect to give it another shot, so I recommend the evolving Wikipedia account as the most comprehensive multi-source synopsis henceforth.
• The producer was listed in the film permit as Sam Bossil. To those involved in the film’s production he apparently gave the pseudonym “Sam Bacile.” His current legal name, which I’m using in these posts, is Mark Basseley Youssef, to which he legally changed his name from Nakoula Basseley Nakoula in 2002. He has operated for decades under these and numerous other pseudonyms, including Matthew Nekola; Ahmed Hamdy; Amal Nada; Daniel K. Caresman; Kritbag Difrat; Sobhi Bushra; Robert Bacily; Nicola Bacily; Thomas J. Tanas; Erwin Salameh; Yousseff M. Basseley; Malid Ahlawi; and P. J. Tobacco. (See Wired magazine’s Danger Room report by Noah Shachtman with Robert Beckhusen, September 13, 2012.)
• Youssef is 55 years old, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian who became a U.S. citizen, resident of Cerritos, California (before his current incarceration). The first published photo of him (without his head and face covered by cap and scarf) appeared on September 17 at TMZ.com.
• The Daily Beast reports that “According to a source close to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula was arrested by the L.A. Country Sheriff’s Department on March 27, 1997 and charged with intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced on Nov. 3, 1997 to one year in county jail and three years probation. The D.A.’s office said he violated probation on April 8, 2002, and was re-sentenced to another year in county jail.” (See Christine Pelisek’s September 13, 2012 report, “Anti-Muslim Movie Maker a Meth Cooker.”)
• Currently he’s held without bail in an undisclosed Los Angeles County federal detention center for violating the terms of his supervised release on a 2010 federal bank fraud conviction that carried a 21-month sentence with five years’ probation. (He was also was ordered to pay restitution of $794,700; whether he did so remains unclear.) Youssef “used more than a dozen aliases and opened about 60 bank accounts and had more than 600 credit and debit cards to conduct the check fraud.” (Click here for the Associated Press report published on September 27.)
• He served only a year of that sentence before starting probation in June 2011, presumably because he turned government informant when the Feds busted him. His eight probation trangressions this time around include employing pseudonyms and hiding his recent legal change of name from his probation officer. Suzanne H. Segal, a federal magistrate judge, called him “a flight risk and a danger to the community,” hence her denial of bail. “Probation officials have recommended a 24-month term for Nakoula, prosecutors said in court. He faces a maximum of three years in prison if found to have violated his parole,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
• Youssef claims that he wrote the script for the film while in prison on the most recent fraud charges. Production began several months after his release in early June of 2011. He states that the entire production cost between $50,000 and $60,000 — the money came from his wife’s family in Egypt — and in August 2011 was shot in a little over 12 days. (See the ABC News report, September 13, 2012.)
• According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, a Duarte, Calif.-based evangelical Christian nonprofit group, Media for Christ, applied for the film permit, at a cost of $1,195 for one day of shooting of a film with the working title “Desert Warriors.” The licensing process does not require disclosure of a film’s content.
• A cabal of anti-Islam fundamentalist-Christian organizations and individuals — the New York Times calls it “a shadowy assortment of right-wing Christians in the United States” — are implicated in the film’s production.
• Youssef told the actors who answered the casting call, and the crew, that he was making an historical film titled Desert Warrior, which supposedly told of “a comet falling into a desert and different tribes in ancient Egypt fighting to acquire it for they deemed that the comet possessed some supernatural powers.” (See the letter from cast member Anna Gurji, whose character in the script was named “Hillary.”) The character portrayed as Muhammad in the film was named “Master George” in the script. (See the interview with Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the cast, and this one with actor Tim Dax.)
• However, it’s clear from the script — located and posted online in full by Gawker.com — that Youssef constructed the entire tale as one long insult to Islam. The cast claim that they never received complete scripts, only pages with their scenes. Still, it remains hard to believe that one could remain unaware of the anti-Muslim thrust of even a single scene. (If the link above doesn’t work, I’ve posted a PDF file of the full script here.)
• The film was shot in southern California, some of it on Hollywood-built sets, including a portion of Blue Cloud Film Ranch called “Baghdad Square,” built for the JAG TV series (1995-2005). Blue Cloud is in Saugus, about 30 miles north of Hollywood. That was the day for which the shooting permit was obtained. Other scenes were shot in Duarte, CA, according to Garcia, “on Hamilton Street in a church that had a greenscreen room. They had the costumes and a makeup and camera crew. It was all very innocent. My God, they were even playing The Passion of the Christ on the screen.” (That’s not so innocent, lady; it’s a highly controversial film that provoked a firebombing in a Parisian theater.) Still others appear to have used Youssef’s own home as a set.
• After shooting wrapped, the actors’ lines were redubbed in the studio without their knowledge or cooperation, with “Muhammad” substituted for “Master George,” then amateurishly lip-synched. (See the interview with Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the cast.)
• The film was directed by Alan Roberts, 65, best known for 1970s softcore porn flicks like The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980). Roberts’s real name is Robert Brownell. He appears to have had no knowledge of Youssef’s subsequent revisions.
• Youssef, using the pseudonym “Sam Bacile,” posted the original English-language version of the film trailer on YouTube on July 2 of this year, around the same time as the premiere. In early September a version dubbed into Arabic got posted at YouTube, and all hell broke loose.
• In what appears to be a genuine interview he granted to U.S.-government-funded Radio Sawa, conducted in Arabic, Youssef — insisting on remaining anonymous — tells an assortment of truths, half-truths, and lies about the film. These include an assertion that a two-hour version of the film exists: “I want the world to watch the movie in its entirety. The duration of the movie is 1.55 hours. Then you can judge for yourselves. I’m now thinking about posting the whole movie on the internet.” Per my previous post, there’s no evidence that, aside from unedited footage, anything exists beyond the trailer. (Here’s a link to an English-language translation of the interview, published by the Voice of America on September 14.)
• Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin has denied the request of Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the cast, to have the film removed from YouTube. The entire 79-member cast and crew have issued a joint statement attesting that they were “grossly misled” about the film’s intent, are “extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer,” and are “shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred,” they continue. Evidence from the casting call supports their claims of unawareness of the film’s content at the outset; however, as noted above, even isolated scenes make Youssef’s purpose clear.
• A Russian court in Grozny, Chechnya, has outlawed the film. So has a court in Moscow. It’s been banned in Indonesia. Pakistan’s Railways Minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour has offered a $100,000 bounty for Youssef’s murder. Egyptian Salafist cleric Ahmad Fouad Ashoush has issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against the entire cast and crew of Innocence of Muslims via jihadist internet forums. And Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the actresses in the film, is suing Youssef, on the unusual basis of copyright infringement. (Apparently she never signed any release forms.)
Looks like busy times ahead for Mark Basseley Youssef, who can count his blessings if he gets to spend the next few years in secure lockdown. With this mediocre production he’s demonstrated the radical right’s eagerness to provoke Muslim outrage with deliberate sacrilege while simultaneously making visible the criminally irresponsible face of fundamentalist Islam. At the same time, he’s seeded a minefield for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who can’t denounce this hypothetical movie (or its all-too-real trailer) in any but the vaguest terms without alienating the Republican base from which it sprang, and can’t afford to acknowledge its origins in the lunatic fringe they’ve courted.
Not bad for the swan song of a 55-year-old who says, in the Radio Sawa interview, “I believe that I’ve done my part. I am no longer a young man. I’ve decided to retire. That is enough for me.”
For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.
This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.