The story behind the inflammatory Muhammad video, Muslim Innocence, gets stranger and stranger after the awful events in Libya and the demonstrations in Cairo which are now spreading to Yemen, Sudan and Tunisia. People are trying to uncover the identity of the mysterious pseudonymous writer-director, Sam Bacile, who may or may not be an Israeli real estate mogul (whoever he is, he is now in hiding). An analysis of the video reveals that the controversial parts were dubbed in during post-production and now the actors are speaking out against the project.
Muhammad Video – A Question of Access
First, let’s note that what has plunged areas of the Middle East into turmoil is not the entire film (I’m not even sure it warrants that term), but a 14 minute trailer which has been translated into Arabic and is getting significant airplay, especially in Egypt. If you like, you can watch the trailer which has put Google into an incredibly difficult position. After the death of the Ambassador, they blocked access to it in Egypt and Libya, but it is still available elsewhere on YouTube. Blocking videos is not a road one goes down lightly – Google regularly gets take-down requests for videos for political reasons. On the other hand, once American lives have been lost, Google had to make an effort to limit access.
Badly Done – and then Dubbed
As for the movie itself, as Sarah Abdurrahman has noted in On the Media, the production values are film-student quality at best and show no evidence of a supposedly $5 million budget. The Prophet Muhammad is portrayed as essentially a dim-witted character and a pedophile, and it includes scene after scene of amateurish staging, lighting and camerawork with teenage-level insults directed at Muslims.
Now it turns out that key lines of the movies dialogue were dubbed in after the filming. Abdurrahman does a close analysis of the trailer and uncovers the following instances of dubbing:
1:25: The Islamic Egyptian police arrested 1400 christians.
2:30: His name is Mohammad. And we can call him “the father unknown.”
3:03: Mohammad! Mohammad the bastard! Your lady summons you!
5:14: I’ll help you, Khadija. I’ll make a book for him. It will be a mix of some version from the Torah, and some versions from the New Testament, and mix them into false verses.
6:30: Mohammad is Allah [sic] messenger, and the Koran is our constitution!
8:25: [not dubbed] It is not enough to believe in one God. [dubbed] You must say “God and Mohammad, his messenger.” Now, go read the Koran.
9:04: Is your Mohammad a child molester?
10:27: …[not dubbed] And in all my young life [dubbed] I have not seen such a murderous thug as Mohammad.
With events spiraling out of control, now the actors are speaking up. Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress from Bakersfield, Calif. has said all of them were deceived about the project. Apparently much of the shooting was done in Los Angeles and green screened so that backgrounds could be added later. According to Garcia, there were no references to Muhammad in the script – he was called “Master George” and the working title was “Desert Warriors.”
The 80-member cast and crew have released a statement deploring the violence sparked by the video:
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. 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. (from CNN)
You can see the original casting call which was posted on craigslist in July 2011 for an “historical desert drama set in Middle East” - there is no mention of Islam at all.
What Happens Next
The scary aspect of the Muhammad video is that the same digital environment that fosters greater connectivity and helped support an Arab Spring can also inflame false accusations and misunderstanding. The ideals of free speech in the United States are neither widely understood or supported in much of the world. Many of the protesters want the U.S. to “take down” the video – not something we can do. We are in the midst of a cultural/political dialogue – one that we have enough trouble dealing with at home – that is now spreading globally. One has to have a certain Jeffersonian faith that the truth and reason will triumph in the end, but this particular moment seems far removed from that ideal. According to Abdurrahman, Ambassador Stevens was ”. . . kind, warm and welcoming. . . genuinely excited to be working in Libya at such a historic moment.” His death is profoundly disturbing. Sadly, it may not be the last consequence of this video.
When we talk about the openness of the Internet, we seldom consider all of the implications of what that concept actually means. We tend to look at the ideal through our own rose-colored glasses, not realizing that openness can serve the purpose of deeply closed minds on all sides.