Film Fund-amentals: “F” Is (Still) for Fake

It’s not often that a low budget indie movie scores international attention. Too bad. The past couple of days have been a grim reminder that there really is such a thing as bad publicity.

The current firestorm, protests, and deaths over the YouTube tape Innocence of Muslims  is a nasty tribute to the global power of the digital process. It is also an example of how much fakery and deception goes on out there. For all practical purposes, the movie doesn’t actually exist. Sure, some kind of a movie was made last year but it is highly likely that the stupid thing was never completed.

Aside from the ongoing international crisis caused by this exercise in provocation, this movie is also an incredible lesson in the darkest aspects of indie production. Every emerging detail concerning the making of Innocence of Muslims is a detailed study in fraud and deception.

Based upon accounts from people involved at various stages of the production, the original film was some sort of ultra low-budget flick called Desert Warriors. Set 2000 years ago, the movie was supposed to be a presentation on violent inter-tribal warfare in the Mideast (curiously minus the Romans who would have been around kicking the most butt at the time). The film appeared to have involved a lot of green screenwork, some really cheap stock footage from old movies, and a protagonist with the odd name of Master George.

The main figure behind this movie was a mysterious guy named Steve (or Sam) Bacile (with various spellings) who was either 52, 56, or 75 years old, depending upon which documents you look at. He seems to have been the screenwriter-producer of the film. Some people involved with the movie thought he might have been Egyptian, though he seems to have claimed that he was Jewish and of Israeli citizenship. Evidence now suggests that he is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian from Egypt though even this is in some doubt. Like everything else in this bizarre tale, every detail could change by the time you read this post. The only real thing about this guy is his previous conviction for fraud. Add in Alan Roberts as the initial director – a man barely known for a handful of soft-porn films in the 1970s – and you have the most dubious line up since Plan Nine From Outer Space. It should be noted that it seems that Roberts sort of vanishes somewhere early in the making of the film and is not supposed to have anything to do with its later alternations.

Though the film did receive a single-day play at a second run theater in Los Angeles, it managed to fly under everybody’s radar. Promotion work for the movie consisted of a woman standing outside handing out fliers and attracting what I suspect were ten winos looking for a place to sleep it off. At that screening, the title was reportedly Innocence of Bin Laden.  10 people stopped to watch the flick.

The footage used in the YouTube presentation has the look of scenes slapped together in a rough cut with marginal post-production work on the digital effects (along with the possibility that it was a mix of footage from several productions). You can clearly see the separation between the characters and the inserted background. Likewise, every time there is a long shot, the characters appear to be slightly hovering over the desert. This clearly indicates that the digital work on the movie was never completed. The average weatherman at a small TV station has better visual effects.

Presumably, the YouTube piece was thrown together as a promo in hopes of getting more money to finish the movie in a new version. Despite a previous claim that the film had a $5 million budget, it probably was made for something closer to the $100,000 stated by the weirdly named Jimmy Israel, a real estate agent who was involved briefly in the production (and whose name isn’t Israel – he just uses it for business purposes). Somewhere along the way, someone did an extensive, and extremely noticeable amount of dubbing on the movie’s dialogue. Suddenly, Master George was now called Mohammad and the flick became a derogatory, and highly inaccurate presentation on the founding of Islam.

The claim made by various cast members that their lines had been changed through dubbing holds up under scrutiny. The poor sound quality, variations in vocal tones, and obvious problems with synchronization clearly indicates that entire sections of new dialogue had been added to the footage. The name of the movie’s main character, Master George, sounds like an obvious set up. Somebody needed the performers to be saying a three-syllable name that began with an “M” to help facilitate the post-production change of the name to Mohammad. This would suggest that the anti-Islamic provocation of the movie was intended from the outset, though the cast and crew appear to have been unaware of this intention.

So basically, the movie is sort of a hoax. A very dangerous hoax with a background story that may take months to sort out while investigators attempt to find out exactly who is who and what charges can be invoked. Likewise, the many layers of duplicity involved in the production plays like a textbook guide to everything you need to look out for in the indie world.

For example, always make sure that you have some solid clue about the identity of anyone you are dealing with. Film is an art of illusions, but the people involved in the process are all quite real and should be able to prove it. Every story about the so-called making of this movie suggests that virtually no one had a clue about the guy running the show.

Digital production works, but you need to do it right. The same goes with every aspect of the film making process. Likewise, digital distribution opens you up to a worldwide audience. The Internet allows you massive access. It also gives you a vast range of total strangers to potentially piss off. You might want to keep that in mind. Unfortunately, I suspect in this particular case that was the intention.

Attempting to promote your work via YouTube is a tough sale. You have to find someway to get attention. It pays to promote through some means that is provocative. Keep in mind that there is a major distinction between “provocative” and “provocation.”  The first can help to perk up interest in the movie. The other often ends up in the filing of criminal and/or civil charges.

-Dennis Toth Copyright (C) 2012 All Rights Reserved