The bizarre video that has been cited in deadly protests in Egypt and Libya has been disowned by its actors and linked to a mysterious figure — allegedly the manager of a film company — named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.
An AP report suggests that Nakoula may be the "Sam Bacile" who posted the video on YouTube; my conversation with a man who operates a real estate company under the name Jimmy Israel, and whose website was linked to the film's production, offers another link to Nakoula.
Israel, who said he worked previously in theater and film production, said he came to the project, which was at the time called Desert Warriors, through his friend, the original director, who he refused to name. "I was going to produce it for him," he said, "but the original producer came back."
Israel said he initially auditioned for a part in the movie, where he met a man who referred to himself as Sam Bacile or Bassiel. He was then asked to help with the production instead. He read the script, which he described as "awful — terribly bloody," but hoped he might be able to influence the film as the production progressed. At the time he was told by his friend — the director — and Bacile that the film was about the historical persecution of Coptic Christians. "That's what I understood it was about," said Israel, who noted that there were flashbacks to Muhammed "being a hypocrite," in the script, but nothing quite as inflammatory as what made it to YouTube. An actress involved in the production told Gawker that the script she worked from had very little to do with Islam or Muhammed. Indeed, the video on YouTube is crudely dubbed over at many points.
Israel's time on the production was early and short: "I worked for two days going over the script," says Israel, "finding the casting venue, and putting the ad in Backstage, and trying to find a SAG deal." (BuzzFeed located him because a casting call for the film features a jimmyisrael.com email address).
"Bacile," or someone, decided to turn down the deal due to budgetary reasons. Israel suggests that, despite earlier reports that the film had millions of dollars of outside financing, the total outlay for the project couldn't have exceeded $100,000. He evidently owes Israel and others money, though Israel didn't specify what for.
"I thought I had a chance of pushing with Sam to change the screenplay," says Israel, who left the project almost immediately. "I would not stay with the film if Sam would not agree to certain changes. I don't work on that kind of film, I'm glad I was replaced."
The result, he said, is a "terrible film that's very poorly made."
In Israel's telling, it was Sam Bacile — a man he met a number of times, and who insisted that was his real name — who turned the film into a piece of religious incitement. "Sam portrayed [Muhammed] as being a sex addict and killing people left and right and having henchmen kill people and so forth," he says, "I don't know about Muhammed at all." The reason for his initial participation was money: "It was really just for hire, I'm not a wealthy man."
In my discussion with Israel, which ended when his phone apparently died, he provided a bizarre sketch of Sam Bacile, who it seems very likely is, in fact, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. (While Israel said he had never met anyone by that name, the name Bacile gave to Israel for the SAG registration was Abnob Nakoula Basseley, and Israel describes him as about the same age as that given in the AP report.) At one point Bacile claimed to have cancer, which didn't turn out to be true. He allegedly went on trips to Egypt to "raise money" for the film. It's hard to rule anything out; I can't be sure, for example, that his friend he would not name, the original director, exists. Likewise, I can't be sure that this isn't part of some larger deception — anything from a prank to some kind of bizarre intelligence operation. It's phenomenally strange.
Israel insists that his anonymous friend, whose initial involvement with the film was overshadowed by Bacile, had no idea things would get out of hand. "Oh yeah, he's got a lot of regrets," Israel said. "He did it primarily for the money," he claimed, though when asked how he thought a film like this could possibly be commercially viable, Israel conceded: "It's very hard to imagine that any distribution company would distribute this."
Israel, who identifies as a "pacifist" liberal with no affiliation to organized religions, and who claims to have no strong opinions about Islam, despite having heard some "alarming" things about the Quran at "seminars," says he supports freedom of religion and expression. "You don't want to go too far," he told me, "and maybe this did."
"Certainly it is very insulting to a muslim to see their Jesus or their Moses being portrayed as a horrible person," he said. "My influence was nil. The effects of the film are because of the way Sam made the film."
Update: A reader writes in:
According to [a] search of the California Birth Index, there was a child born by the name Abanob Basseley Nakoula in California in 1991. His father based on the results appears to be the same Nakoula Basseley Nakoula you discuss in your article. So it appears that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is likely Sam Bacile because the name Sam Bacile gave for SAG registration is virtually identical to the name of a person who is likely Nakoula's son.
The AP report that identified Nakoula notes that he had been found guilty of bank fraud in 2010, resulting in a five-year ban on computer and internet use. The fact that the name used on Bacile's SAG deal registration belonged to Nakoula's son is consistent with the theory that Bacile is Nakoula.
Update 2: We were sent yet another statement from an actor distancing himself from the project. He claims that "Sam" is actually Abanob Basseley Nakoula; it still seems, however, that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula may have been using his son's name for legal reasons. The tipster attached a check with Abanob's name clearly legible:
The real name of "Sam Bassiel", director of "Innocence of Muslims", is Abanob Basseley Nakoula and he lied to the actors in this film. Originally titled "Desert Warrior", we were only given a few pages of dialogue at a time and on all the scripts and casting notices the lead character was named "George". References to Muhammad and Islamic Terrorism were added with low-quality audio dubs and selective editing in post production, as should be obvious.
After a thorough and ostensibly legit audition process, we were hired as day players for a "historical war drama period piece" that was to be filmed in front of a green screen in Duarte, Ca. Red flags included (but were not limited to): the shoddy television studio that we were told was lent to us by an Egyptian Christian media group, payments issued by personal checks and $20 bills straight from the producer's wallet (he introduced himself under the pseudonym,"Sam", though the name on the check was much different), and, ultimately, the absence of an official script. All we were given were a few pages, short scenes and really awkward lines that had apparently been translated from Arabic, with character names like "George" and "Sophia" mixed in with what I assumed to be traditional Middle Eastern character names. Despite the weirdness of it all, we were struggling actors who needed a check. There was no reason for us to assume that "Sam" would alter the film as he did. We just assumed that this was another crappy low-budget independent film that no one would ever see. Little did we know...
I will always defend the right to freedom of speech. But speech is something you stand behind. "Sam Bassiel" wouldn't even stand behind his scripts. We, the actors, feel violated, tricked and lured into a project under false pretenses and then used to make a political statement we do not agree with. Our faces were put in the spotlight by Abanob Besseley Nakoula in an undeniably obvious attempt to agitate and incite violence from those who would be most offended by his message. Yet, like a coward, he is not showing his face. He can hide, but we cannot. Our faces are being broadcast globally in a film that was a complete mystery to us during production.