A filmmaker’s stunt implicating Jews heard ’round the Middle Eastern world

UPDATE (Thurs Noon): There was something fishy from the start of a bizarre story linking violent riots in Egypt and Libya to a controversial “Muhammad” film said to be the work of filmmaker Sam Bacile, an L.A. based Israeli American who claimed he raised money for the film from “Jewish donors.”

After reporters around the country spent the morning scrambling after the facts, it was soon discovered that Sam Bacile was a pseudonym, and probably not Israeli, or even Jewish, as he described himself to The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal.

By evening, the Associated Press tracked down an address for the cellphone number with which they had spoken to Sam Bacile, and found instead Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Egyptian who tried to hide his middle name from reporters when showing them his drivers license. Nakoula denied he had directed the film, but said he managed the production company that produced it, according to National Public Radio.

It was not long before the AP discovered other documents tying Nakoula to Bacile, including a criminal record with charges of bank fraud for which he served time in prison. Nakoula apparently has a history of using aliases; NPR even located a casting call notice for a film “Desert Warriors” produced by “Sam Bassiel.”

Nakoula is a Coptic Christian, however, and questions remain regarding the strange conflation of religious affiliation and provocation around which this story centers. Whoever made the stunt film “Innocence of Muslims” (or at least the trailer for it) clearly intended to implicate Jews in the incitement that ensued after its dissemination. On his blog at The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg suggested this has endangered Jews. “The story that 'Sam Bacile' is an Israeli Jew, with '100 Jewish donors,' has spread across the Middle East. It is not possible to withdraw such a story.”

Though there are many to blame in the generating of this scheme and the violence it inspired, Goldberg was quick to point his finger at the two major media outlets that helped spread this story. “'Sam Bacile' could not have spread the apparent fiction that Jews were behind this film without the help of the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal, which both reported, without independently checking, 'Sam Bacile's' claim to be Israeli.”

BREAKING (Weds Noon): Developing: Filmmaker who outraged Muslims unknown to L.A. Jews, Israelis, industry pros

The director of a film that sparked violent protests in Libya and Egypt, who is alleged to be an Israeli Jew based in California, in fact appears to be completely unknown among both Jewish and Israeli leaders in Los Angeles, including top-level people involved in the film industry.

The filmmaker, whose name — or perhaps pseudomyn —  is Sam Bacile, gave interviews by phone to the Associated Press and others about the film on Tuesday, in which he called Islam “a cancer.” He said he had intended the film to be “a political movie,” and that he had gone into hiding.

Israelis involved in the film industry contacted by The Journal on Wednesday morning, however, have never heard of anyone by that name.

“I don’t know him, never heard about him, don’t know anything about this guy,” said Meir Fenigstein, who founded the Los Angeles-based Israel Film Festival in 1982.

That would confirm reporting by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, who reported this morning that he was told by a “self-described militant Christian activist in Riverside, Calif., that the name, “Sam Bacile,” is a pseudonym. Klein has been described in media accounts as a “consultant” to the film.

But according to scores of interviews conducted by Journal reporters, not a single person has seen the complete film, allegedly entitled, “The Innocence of Muslims;” only a short trailer is available on YouTube.

Bacile, meanwhile, according to the Associated Press' report, is “a California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew.”

Individuals in the real estate community also found that claim dubious.

“If there was something happening in the real estate business in L.A., I would know about it,” said Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Jesse Scharf is chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’s real estate division and co-chair of the real estate division at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Scharf echoed Sanderson’s refrain, saying he hadn’t heard of anyone named Bacile. “If this person was, in fact, Israeli, in the real estate business, in Los Angeles, somebody would know the guy,” he said. “Pretty rare that a person active in real estate wouldn't have a story.”

The film reportedly portrays the prophet Mohammed in a negative light. Muslim protesters killed four Americans in the eastern Libyan city of Bengahzi, including the American ambassador to Libya, and burned down U.S. Consulate there. Similar protests took place at an American mission in Cairo. The Obama administration suspects that the attack in Libya may have been planned, according to the New York Times.

According to the Associated Press, “The Innocence of Muslims” was made on a budget of $5 million and was funded by 100 Jewish donors. It was reportedly screened once to a mostly empty theater in Hollywood this year.

One L.A. Jewish filmmaker familiar with the world of anti-Islamic documentaries estimated the production costs of the movie were “closer to $25,000.”

But several members of the Hollywood community interviewed said they had never heard about the film before today, nor seen it. When asked about Bacile, Noa Tishby, an Israeli actress and producer wrote in an email, “Never heard of him.” 

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, said Los Angeles donors are “serious” and would not have produced something so “goofy.”

A mysterious air continues to surround the situation that has had dire consequences in the killing of American diplomats. Whoever Steve Bacile is — or isn’t — the question remains: Why did he describe himself as an Israeli American and claim that he funded an “anti-Muslim” film with donations from the Jews?

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States on Sept. 11. Photo by REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori