Director of anti-Muslim movie that sparked attacks on U.S. facilities not Israeli

The director of an anti-Islam film that helped sparked attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities is not Israeli as he claimed, a consultant to the film said.

The Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg reported that a Steve Klein, a consultant to the controversial film, “Innocence of Muslims,” and a self-described militant Christian activist in Riverside, Calif., said that the film's directo,r Sam Bacile, is not Israeli and that the name is a pseudonym.

Goldberg quoted Klein as saying: “I don't know that much about him. I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He's not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved.” Klein said: “His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he's Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”

Meanwhile, a high-ranking Israeli official in Los Angeles told JTA Wednesday that after numerous inquiries, it appeared that no one in the Hollywood film industry or in the local Israeli community knew of a Sam Bacile, the supposed director-writer of the incendiary film “Innocence of Muslims.”

The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats were killed at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the U.S. embassy in Cairo was attacked Tuesday evening by angry protesters.

Amb. John Christopher Stevens and three unnamed diplomats were killed Tuesday night in a rocket attack on their car in Benghazi, the White House confirmed Wednesday morning. U.S. officials said that the armed attack on the consulate may have been pre-planned.

On Tuesday evening, Egyptian protesters climbed over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, pulled down an American flag and tried to set it alight.

The attacks follow the release online of an Arabic translation of the movie. Media reports said it was directed by Bacile, who described himself as a California real estate developer. The two-hour movie attacks the Islamic prophet Muhammad, making him out to be a fraud.

The film was screened one time at a movie theater in Hollywood, someone identifying himself as Bacile told the AP.

Bacile said went into hiding on Tuesday night, speaking to international media from an undisclosed location.

Klein told Goldberg that I there are some 15 people associated with the making of the film, all American citizens.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the attack.

“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation,” she said in a statement. “But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

The Los Angeles chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Shura Council are scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday to condemn the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and attacks on diplomatic facilities and persons in Libya and Egypt.

In Washington, CAIR’s national officials called on Muslims in the Middle East “to ignore the trashy anti-Islam film that resulted in the attacks.”

‘Syrian Bride’ Weds Simple Tale, History

The guests at this Middle Eastern wedding were more mournful than joyous. But even more troubled was the Druze bride herself. All dressed up, she was stuck at a border crossing in the dusty demilitarized zone between Israel’s Golan Heights and Syria.

It wasn’t clear if she’d be allowed to cross for her wedding. And if she did, she might never see her family on the other side again.

Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis witnessed and filmed the incident, which became part of his 1999 documentary, “Borders.”

Now, the director has returned to this material in his searing, new feature film, “The Syrian Bride,” which is loosely based on that stressful 1998 day at the border. The film also confronts personal and psychological limits, especially those faced by women in traditional societies. And it’s generated controversy and won awards across many borders. The film will screen at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.

In the real-life episode, the bride from a village that became Israeli after the 1967 War was to marry a Druze from Damascus. The Druze religion is a medieval offshoot of Islam, and the Druze people have been divided among several countries in the region.

The bride’s listed nationality, like that of many former Syrians in the area, was listed as “undetermined.” This designation meant that once she crossed into Syria, she would never be allowed to return to her village; nor would her relatives be allowed to visit her.

Riklis lingered with his camera, hoping to shoot the nuptials. But the Syrian border official balked at the Israeli stamp on the bride’s passport, while his Israeli counterpart refused to erase the stamp. So the bride sweated for hours in the sun as her taffeta gown wilted.

“It was just a short sequence, but it obsessed me,” Riklis said. “It was the image of a bride in a white dress, in an almost Western setting, and having to deal with politics and bureaucracy, when all you want to do is get married.

“I quickly realized I had everything I needed to make a successful movie,” he added. “There was Israel, there was Syria and the people caught in the middle.

“What I’ve tried to do in all my films is to tell simple stories of simple people, set against the backdrop of local, regional and even world politics,” he said. “And this had all the ingredients to tell the story of the whole history of the Middle East.”

And that’s precisely what he attempts in his new, fictional work, “The Syrian Bride.” The title character is Mona (Clara Khoury) from the village of Majdal Shams, whose wedding day is the saddest of her life. Her arranged marriage to a Syrian actor, whom she has never met, will mean utter isolation in a strange city.

Her father, a recently released political prisoner, will be unable to see her off because he is prohibited from going near the border. Her brother, who was excommunicated after marrying a non-Druze, is also banned from the wedding.

Above all, Mona dreads losing her sister, the feisty Amal (Hiam Abbass), who is unhappy in an arranged marriage to a man who refuses to allow her to become a social worker. But while Mona silently broods throughout the film, Amal gradually speaks up, defying village convention, as well as bureaucrats threatening the wedding.

“Bride” joins the burgeoning trend of Israeli films — such as Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” — that tackle Middle East strife through intimate human dramas. It won 16 awards on the festival circuit, making it perhaps the most honored film in Israeli history.

“It’s hard to imagine a recent film that presents a more nuanced portrait of Israelis and Arabs, of Jews and Druze, of their equal capacity for heartlessness and generosity,” The Forward said.

Riklis, who calls himself a “filmmaker without borders,” spoke to The Journal from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where he was researching a movie on globalization. The easygoing director said he felt completely at home in the foreign milieu, having crossed borders all his life. The son of a scientist who worked internationally, Jerusalem-born Riklis spent his youth, respectively, in Montreal, New York, Beersheva, New Haven, Rio de Janeiro, London and Tel Aviv.

Attending an American high school in Brazil helped shape his world view in the late 1960s, he said in unaccented English. Israeli pride was high after the 1967 victory, but Riklis’ American classmates fiercely argued over their own Vietnam War.

“This opened my eyes to a more nuanced approach to world politics, and made me aware that there is always another way of looking at things,” he said. “That later shaped my approach as a democratic filmmaker who tries to show all points of view.”

To reflect his heroines’ viewpoints in “Bride,” Riklis said he sought “an open-minded woman with a traditional Arab background” to co-write the drama. Because the Druze do not have a tradition of theater or cinema, he was unable to find a suitable Druze partner.

Instead, he pursued Palestinian Israeli Suha Arraf, who grew up in a Christian village in the northern Galilee, worked as journalist for Haaretz newspaper and won kudos for her documentaries on Arab life. Thirty-six and unmarried, brash and outspoken, she refuses to make documentaries on subjects such as female suicide bombers because she perceives them as cliched — the kind of film critics might expect her to direct — and “I am not a puppet,” she said from her Haifa apartment.

Although Riklis had tactfully depicted Arabs in his 1991 soccer film, “Cup Final,” Arraf was initially cautious.

“I don’t agree to work with just any Jewish filmmaker,” she said, briskly. “A lot of Jews want to make movies about Arabs, and there are a lot of stereotypes.”

Actress Haim Abbass had an even stronger response: “I thought, ‘Who … is this guy who is so interested in such intimate stories of Arab culture,'” she said from New York.

Riklis won over both women by stating that he did not represent Syrians, Israelis or Druze, but rather the truth. He added that he wanted to tell the story because “everyone knows about the Palestinians, but few realize the Druze were also occupied in 1967.”

While Riklis researched the film by spending time in the real village of Majdal Shams, Abbass prepared in a more private manner.

“I found I identified with my character on almost every level — on both feminist and political fronts,” she said.

The actress had grown up in a traditional Muslim village near the Lebanese border. While her parents were modern, the villagers weren’t. Abbass was severely criticized for refusing to wed her cousin in an arranged marriage at 18, for smoking and for planning to attend university to study theater and photography, which was not perceived as a woman’s profession.

She also related to the fictional Amal because the border had separated her own family.

“I knew that my mother’s sister was in Syria, and that my mother and aunt could never see each other,” she said. “I grew up acutely aware of the exile and distance caused by war.”

Jewish-Palestinian hostilities eventually led Abbass to relocate to Paris, where she won roles in Arabic language films, such as 2002’s “Satin Rouge.” “The Syrian Bride” is her first made-in-Israel movie, although the dialogue is mostly in Arabic.

While Palestinians and Jews worked well together on the set, the movie initially drew ire from both Arabs and Israelis. Druze viewers resented the depiction of how their tradition treats women. A Palestinian director dismissed the movie as “an Israeli liberal token job” and all but one Arabic film festival refused it.

Meanwhile, Jews complained that the Israeli characters are villainous. (Riklis insists they’re well-rounded border types.) The film became a critical and commercial success in Israel only after it won accolades and audiences in Europe; even so, it did not win a single Israeli Oscar.

Riklis said he wasn’t upset about the Oscars, because “Bride” has proven its universal appeal. Although inspired by that 1998 Druze wedding, “the movie transcends geography, because its really about all people at a crossroads, living with physical and emotional borders.”


Cameo of a Playwright

Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai will direct a novice actor in his next movie.He is playwright Arthur Miller, better known as the author of “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and numerous other dramas.

The title of the movie is “Plain Jane” and Miller will be familiar with the plotline. “Plain Jane” is based on his own short story, “Homely Girl, a Life,” according to an article in The Hollywood Reporter.

In the $9 million English-language film, Samantha Morton will play the troubled daughter of Jewish immigrants, and the 85-year-old Miller will make his big screen debut as her father.

Miller’s story is set in the Jewish immigrant community of New York, but the film version has been transplanted to Palestine of the late 1930s, before the establishment of the state of Israel.

Gitai is known for his highly controversial Hebrew-language films, most recently “Kadosh” and “Kippur.”

Strong Opinions

Renowned Israeli director Amos Gitai acknowledges that his film, “Kadosh,” raises ire in segments of the observant community. “It’s critical of certain elements of Jewish tradition that I consider to be reactionary,” says the filmmaker, whose movie tells of two oppressed Orthodox women in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim. “But it’s not a total denial. It’s precise.”

Specifically, the film explores what Gitai calls the “great contradiction” of all the world’s great monotheistic religions: the subjugation of women. And no, he’s not sorry that “Kadosh” doesn’t offer more diverse portraits of observant women. “I don’t think art is about balance,” he says, fixing a reporter with laser-like brown eyes during an interview at the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel. “Art cannot be politically negotiated.”

Gitai, one of Israel’s few internationally-acclaimed filmmakers, has paid for his vision. Officials of the Quality Film Encouragement Fund in Israel refused to support the provocative movie at every level of production, always for “artistic reasons,” he says. They recanted and granted Gitai $50,000 to complete his film only when “Kadosh” became the first Israeli movie in 25 years to be included in the main competition at Cannes, Gitai says. “That was sweet,” admits the 50-year-old filmmaker, who is no stranger to controversy.

After his first three documentaries were censored by Israeli television for criticizing the government and the military, Gitai, the son of a Bauhaus architect-turned-Nazi-refugee, moved to Paris for seven years and continued making movies that chronicled states of exile. He has been both celebrated and chastised for films like “House,” a documentary about Arabs who fled Israel in 1948.

After Gitai moved back to Israel in 1993, he began a trilogy of feature films that captured the Israeli Zeitgeist by focusing on three cities: Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem is “all about religion,” he decided to set his movie in one of the city’s most famed Orthodox Jewish communities, Mea Shearim, he says. But while the story is critical of Orthodoxy, it is also reverent, Gitai insists. The director, after all, worked hard to accurately depict the beauty of Jewish ritual.

As research, he and his co-screenwriter, Elite Abecassis, an observant woman, spent a year hanging out in the shuls and schools of Mea Shearim. Gitai studied Jewish attitudes toward sex and childlessness on a CD-ROM edition of the Talmud. He filmed exterior shots of Mea Shearim in the early morning to avoid offending residents. A rabbi taught Jewish ritual to the actors, who studied Torah each evening during production.

Earlier this year, Gitai presided over a muddy shoot on the Golan Heights, where, under torrential rains, he recreated bloody battle scenes for his next film, an autobiographical account of his experience during the Yom Kippur War. Like all his movies, “Kippur” is likely to raise eyebrows. But Gitai doesn’t mind. “Controversy is natural when you make movies that strike a nerve,” he says. “And I don’t like conformity of opinion, even regarding my films.”

“Kadosh” opens March 17 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869, and Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, (818) 981-9811.