As mob attacks on US embassies spread from Libya to Yemen and Egypt, doubt is cast on the origins and motives behind the anti-Muslim film said to have triggered the violence, Channel 4 News reports.
Clips of the film, which are said to show the Muslim prophet Mohammad engaging in crude and offensive behaviour, were posted online weeks ago under several titles including “Innocence of Muslims”.
The self-proclaimed director of the film said on Wednesday he was in hiding following the attack on America’s Libyan embassy which killed the US Ambassador to Libya.
“Sam Bacile” described himself to journalists over the phone as a US-based property developer of Jewish and Israeli origin. Mr Bacile told various media operations that the film cost $5 million, some of which was put forward by around 100 Jewish donors.
Yet by the day’s end his story had unravelled, with actors and producers involved in the film dispelling a number of myths.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the government had “absolutely nothing to do with this video”. She added: “We absolutely reject its content and message. To me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible.”
However, she added: “I know it is hard for some people to understand why the US cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day…But even if it were possible our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our constitution and our law.”
American actors and actresses who appeared in “Innocence of Muslims” issued a joint statement saying they were misled about the project and alleged that some of their dialogue was crudely dubbed during post-production.
In the English-language version of the trailer, direct references to Muhammad appear to be the result of post-production changes to the movie. Either actors aren’t seen when the name “Muhammad” is spoken in the overdubbed sound, or they appear to be mouthing something else as the name of the prophet is spoken.
“The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer,” said the statement, obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
We are 100 percent not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. Statement from the film’s cast and crew
“We are 100 percent not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred.”
One of the actresses, Cindy Lee Garcia, told Gawker.com that the film was originally titled “Desert Warriors” and said the script did not contain offensive references to Islam. She said the director, who identified himself as Bacile, told her then that he was Egyptian.
Ms Garcia said the film was shot in the summer of 2011 inside a church near Los Angeles, with actors standing in front of a “green screen,” used to depict background images. About 50 actors were involved, she said.
Experts questioned the £5m price tag of the film citing the low production values evident in its stilted dialogue and wooden acting.
The existence of Sam Bacile has yet to be proved, with evidence mounting that the film’s key player could be a southern Californian Coptic Christian with a chequered past.
Steven Klein, from Southern California, described himself as a consultant and spokesman for the project – though not the filmmaker. He told Reuters he believed the name was a pseudonym.
“I’ve met him twice, I don’t know what country he is from. I do know he’s not an Israeli Jew and I can only guess he threw that out to protect his family, which I do know is back in the Middle East,” Mr Klein told Reuters.
Mr Klein, a former US marine, said he advised the filmmaker to go into hiding.
Meanwhile Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, told The Associated Press in an interview outside Los Angeles that he had managed logistics for the company which produced the film.
He is definitely in hiding and does not reveal his identity. Radical pastor Terry Jones
Mr Nakoula also denied he had directed the film, however the mobile phone number given to the AP for Mr Bacile was traced to the same address as Mr Nakoula.
Federal court papers filed in a 2010 criminal prosecution against Mr Nakoula said he had used numerous aliases in the past. Among the fake names, the documents said, were Nicola Bacily and Erwin Salameh.
During a conversation outside his home, Mr Nakoula offered his driver’s license to show his identity but kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley. Records checks by the AP subsequently found that middle name as well as other connections to the Bacile persona.
Pastor Terry Jones, who sparked outrage in the Arab world when he announced plans to burn Qurans on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, said he had discussed promoting the film with its director but had not met the filmmaker in person.
Mr Jones added: “I have not met him. Sam Bacile, that is not his real name. I just talked to him on the phone. He is definitely in hiding and does not reveal his identity. He was quite honestly fairly shook up concerning the events and what is happening. A lot of people are not supporting him. He was generally a little shook up concerning this situation.”
Mr Bacile’s phone number was given to the AP by Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the US who had promoted the anti-Muslim film in recent days on his website.
Egypt’s Christian Coptic populace has long decried what they describe as a history of discrimination and occasional violence from the country’s Arab majority.
Mr Sadek however said he was sorry US diplomats had been killed and that his objective had been to highlight discrimination against Copts in Egypt.
Coptic Christians, who form Egypt’s biggest minority group and constitute most of Egypt’s Christian population, have had a difficult relationship with the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim majority.
Do I have blood on my hands? No. Steven Klein, consultant and spokesman for the film
Yet Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church has condemned some Copts living abroad who it said had financed “the production of a film insulting Prophet Mohammad.”
“Its release at this specific time is part of a malicious campaign targeting defamation of religions aiming to divide the people, most notably the Egyptian people,” the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church said.
The film’s spokesman Mr Klein meanwhile blamed the violence on Muslim extremists.
“Do I have blood on my hands? No,” said Klein, who the Southern Poverty Law Centre said has worked with a militia at the California-based Church at Kaweah and conducts drills with a San Francisco-based group named Christian Guardians.
“Those people are screwballs,” Klein said of the SPLC. He added he is not “what these people say.”