'Innocence of Muslims' mystery: Who is Sam Bacile?

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The man behind video excerpts from an anti-Muslim movie that provoked mobs in Egypt and Libya said Wednesday that he has gone into hiding. But doubts rose about the man’s exact identity amid a flurry of false claims about his background and role in the purported film. The filmmaker, who identified himself in a telephone interview with The Associated Press as Sam Bacile, said he is an Israeli-born, Jewish writer and director of Innocence of Muslims. Bacile was the name used to publish excerpts of the movie online as early as July 2.

But some key facts about Bacile’s background and role in the film crumbled Wednesday as a Christian activist involved in the film project said that Bacile was a pseudonym, that he was not Jewish or Israeli, and that a group of Americans of Mideast origin collaborated on the film. Officials in Israel also said there was no record of Bacile as an Israeli citizen.

Doubts mounted as well about the provenance of the film, Innocence of Muslims. Several Hollywood and California film industry groups and permit agencies said they had no records of the project. Only an employee at a faded Hollywood movie theater confirmed that an entire version of the film had staged a brief run several months ago.

All that currently exists of the film are about 13 minutes of excerpts on YouTube, in English and Arabic language versions. While the excerpts were still viewable online in the U.S. on Wednesday, they vanished from the Web in Egypt. Cairo residents who tried to view the YouTube site instead got a warning that “this content is not available in your country due to a legal complaint.”

Protesters apparently angered over the film burned down the U.S. Consulate Tuesday in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Libyan officials said Wednesday that Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy employees were killed during the mob violence, but U.S. officials now say they are investigating whether the assault was a planned terrorist strike linked to Tuesday’s 11-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his brief interview with the AP, the man who identified himself as Bacile defiantly called Islam “a cancer,” and said that he intended the film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion. But several facts Bacile provided about himself soon proved false or questionable. Bacile told AP he was 56, but identified himself on his Youtube profile as 74.

A Riverside, Calif., Christian activist who said he was a consultant and worked with Bacile on the film told The Atlantic Monthly on Wednesday that Bacile’s name was a pseudonym, and that he was not Jewish or Israeli. The activist, Steve Klein, said that behind the film were Americans who had lived in several Mideast countries. “Nobody is anything but by an active American citizen,” Klein told the Atlantic. “They’re from Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, there are some that are from Egypt. Some are Copts but the vast majority are evangelical.”

In an interview Tuesday with the AP, Klein said the filmmaker is concerned for family members who live in Egypt. Bacile declined to confirm that suggestion. Klein did not return phone messages to the AP on Wednesday.

Klein told the AP that he promised to help Bacile make the movie but warned him that “you’re going to be the next Theo van Gogh.” Van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004 after making a film that was perceived as insulting to Islam. “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen,” Klein said.

Bacile told the AP he is a real estate developer selling a house and an Israeli Jew. But Israeli officials said they had not heard of him and there was no record of him being a citizen. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to share personal information with the media.

The name Bacile also does not appear in searches of California state licenses, including the Department of Real Estate. Directors’ and producers’ groups in Los Angeles said they had no record of Bacile and California’s state film commission said no permits had been issued to Bacile or Innocence of Muslims. But officials added that films can easily be made on a shoestring, without permits and under the radar of authorities and film industry watchdogs. “There’s no universal registry where you can tell for sure this is legitimate film,” said Chris Green, a spokesman with the Producer’s Guild of America.

The only sparse evidence indicating that an entire version of Innocence of Muslims was filmed beyond its 13.5-minute trailer came in comments from an employee of the Vine Theater, a Hollywood Boulevard theater that was padlocked on Wednesday. The theater employee, who declined to identify himself, said that a version of Innocence of Muslims ran briefly several months ago at the theater and that a man whose first name was Sam had brought the film to the theater.

In his earlier interview with AP, the man who identified himself as Bacile said that the film had run for a day at a mostly-empty Hollywood theater. “This is a political movie,” Bacile told the AP. “The U.S. lost a lot of money and a lot of people in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re fighting with ideas.”

Bacile said he believes the movie will help his native land by exposing Islam’s flaws to the world. “Islam is a cancer, period,” he said repeatedly, his solemn voice thickly accented.

The two-hour movie, Innocence of Muslims, cost $5 million to make and was financed with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors, said Bacile. The film claims Muhammad was a fraud. The trailer, posted in an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Muhammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons. It depicts Muhammad as a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse, among other overtly insulting claims that have caused outrage.

Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any manner, let alone insult the prophet. A Danish newspaper’s 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet triggered riots in many Muslim countries.

Though Bacile was apologetic about the American who was killed as a result of the outrage over his film, he blamed lax embassy security and the perpetrators of the violence. “I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” said Bacile. “America should do something to change it.”

Bacile’s film was dubbed into Egyptian Arabic by someone he doesn’t know, but he speaks enough Arabic to confirm that the translation is accurate. It was made in three months in the summer of 2011, with 59 actors and about 45 people behind the camera.

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