The Innocents of “The Innocence of Muslims”

I got up this morning and finally watched in its entirety the movie everyone was talking about last month. It’s not “The Master.” In fact, it’s not even a movie. It’s 13-minute “trailer” for a movie made by an Egyptian-American named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula under the nom de cinema Sam Bacile. Over two weeks after the riots loosely associated with it, Nakoula has been ordered held by U.S. marshals in L.A. until he gets a hearing that determines whether all the deceptions he committed while making the movie amounted to a serious enough violation of his parole agreement for a previous fraud conviction to put him back in jail.

Anyone familiar with the independent film landscape knows that a 13-minute trailer makes zero sense. It obviously means, “We shot it and it sucked, so we saved the few bits that sort of work, and anyway here they are.”

It’s painful to watch “The Innocence of Muslims,” not because it’s effective at all, nor, honestly, because I am still feeling any pain about the few lives that were lost in the riots. Like the rest of us, I am numb and forgetful when it comes to global tragedies – though I did read about a fresh protest just yesterday in a city I’ve personally visited and found very charming: Ahmedabad, in Western India.

The overwhelming feeling I get is embarrassment for the cast, one of whom tried to sue to keep it off of Youtube. The court ruled against her, so, in case you don’t believe how bad it is, you can watch it here:

It reminds me of the people you meet working on independent films in L.A. and New York. One once advised me to adopt his work ethic: “Work every day. Even if you’re barely getting paid, and it’s a lousy project, it’s a day you’re not laying on your couch.” It’s advice that stuck with me, but more with regard to writing than PA-ing.

In minute after minute of “The Innocence of Muslims,” you can watch the step-by-step plan for how bad movies get made: L.A. Craigslist ads. An independent producer with access to some kind of cash, no one knows how, but obviously living beyond his means. Attractive leads who might even be capable actors. Miscast supporting actors. Some fake beards, and some bit players cast because of their real beards. Crew members stepping in as extras. Producer realizing that his art budget doesn’t go very far. Shit for dialogue but actors dutifully going through the paces. A writer-director jealously keeping his script secret – and the cast and crew not thinking this is unusual. Crew starting to suspect that the technical corners being cut are ruining scenes. Actors getting called in to overdub one another’s lines. This, depressingly, is business as usual, and hundreds of people are arriving in LA and New York today (not metaphorically “today” as in “this day and age,” I mean TODAY) eager to participate in this workforce because it is a recognized way of starting out.

Otherwise, you have to hand it to Nakoula for some weirdly perfect timing. Not that I admire him for organizing an effectively viral hunk of agitprop, because I don’t know how to do that, and therefore I’m not certain that he really didn’t just get lucky. I just can’t help noticing that “The Innocence of Muslims” appeared during a storm of similar media sensations:

On this very month, a Harvard divinity professor named Karen King claimed that she has a fragment of a Coptic papyrus that shows that one 4th Century tradition believed that Jesus was married. Nakoula is Coptic, and when is the last time two incendiary pieces of Coptic news hit the front page in one month? The Vatican and other Christian leaders are claiming that King’s fragment is a fake, but, to their credit, none have offered a bounty for killing her. Pakistan’s Minister of Railways has offered a bounty for anyone who kills Nakoula.

Secondly, Nakoula hit his mark just when “Rebecca” got canceled before it started on Broadway, an oddly similar story about fictitious investors. It’s a venerable tradition of show biz ploys. Producers claim that they have a lot of financial backing, and wing it for a time with an “If you build it, they will come” strategy: If the money comes through, then they will make their film or play. If it doesn’t, then they can go out and find a new investor with a line like this: “We just lost one of our investors, but everything is ready to go, so it’s a great time for you to get on board.” If the necessary money never comes through, then they can take what money they have cobbled together, make nothing at all, or, say, a 13-minute trailer as cheaply as they can, and then pocket the rest. For those of you who enjoy a story of debasement and corruption, I found one writer named Sheila Musaji, whose website The American Muslim exhaustively breaks down the seedy players behind “The Innocence of Muslims,” a confluence of religious hate groups and classic show biz scams.

Finally, it also happened the same month that Salman Rushdie’s memoir about his early days of living under a fatwah is being published. He’s more visible than before, and a film version of “Midnight’s Children” is about to come out. A counter-weight to Nakoula, he is either the high-brow example of the same principle or, in a more reasonable opinion – i.e., mine – he’s the timely reminder of who or what we would go further to to defend. A few Republican and civil libertarian friends of mine from college were venting on Facebook about how Obama needed to defend Nakoula more sharply, but I just couldn’t buy it. It was gratifying to read what Rushdie himself said to The Telegraph when asked about “The Innocence of Muslims”: “Clearly, it’s a piece of crap, is very poorly done and is malevolent.”

Malevolent, I would add, in more ways than one.

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