In a saner world, the trailer for Innocence of Muslims would get no response other than as an example of terrible filmmaking. The 14-minute video, purporting to be excerpted from a larger movie propagandizing present-day Muslims and the life of Muhammad, is confoundingly bad, filled with incongruous accents, haphazard cuts, ludicrous dialogue and green-screen so bad that the actors appear to be floating in the air (see, e.g., the 3:15 mark in the trailer linked above).
We do not live in that saner world. The world that we get to live in is the one where people who want to start fights, and the murderous zealots glad to oblige them with acts of opportunistic savagery, generally get their way. The video was made, whipped-up outrage led to attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Libya, and four Americans are dead. (Although some press reports now suggest the deadly attack in Benghazi was planned independently of the movie protests.) And suddenly, a risible piece of cinematic trolling posted to YouTube weeks ago is deadly serious.
[We also live in a world where I need to say some things that should be obvious: That only murderers are responsible for the murders they commit. That committing violence because you're offended is inexcusable and uncivilized. That you can support the right to free speech without approving of every use of free speech. And that it's possible for two sides in a conflict—if not more—to be wrong.]
As for the video itself; if you watched it not knowing its history (made by a real-estate developer who calls Islam a “cancer”* and promoted by anti-Islamist bigot Terry Jones), you’d think it was a parody of religious propaganda. *(Update: other recent reports cast questions on the filmmaker’s real backstory and identity.) It begins with a homemade-video-quality story involving attacks on Egyptian Christians by Muslims (many of them with thick New York accents) then ties this story to a version of the founding of Islam that paints Muhammad as a depraved, perverted, unstable sadist.
The prophet—played by an actor reminiscent of a less-talented Ashton Kutcher—sneers and snivels through a slanted retelling of the founding stories of Islam. He connives with henchmen, wearing Sunday-school-pageant costumes and reclining in front of tents, and promises pedophilic soldiers that they can rape children as war spoils. (“How pleasurable is our Islamic ways! [sic]” one declaims.) Muhammad himself is simultaneously depicted as gay (subtle reveal: “Is the messenger of God gay?” “Yes, he is!”), a pedophile, and sexually preying on women.
The Koran is written for Muhammad by another man, who promises to weave together travesties of the Torah and New Testament “into false verses.” He has a bizarrely homoerotic, one-sided conversation with a donkey (a take on an old story that’s been cited by critics charging Muhammad with perversion). [Update and caveat: I suspect that the video includes other scenes and references that might seem absurd to an outsider but speak directly to Muslims and critics of Islam; I admittedly come to this as a total religious layman.] By the trailer’s end, he swings a bloody sword, his clothing seemingly stained with grape juice, and cries, “Every non-Muslim is an infidel! Their lands, their women, their children are our spoils!” before being engulfed in a fireball.
The film is also obviously effective—if you assume its sole purpose is to stir trouble, and it’s hard to imagine another one. If it were actually meant to win over Westerners, its poor production and inscrutability would be crippling; if it were meant to persuade Muslims, it wouldn’t be so transparently provoking.
In a reasonable world, this video might be a bizarre curiosity, fodder for a religious version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If only we were able to boggle at it and move on. Instead, we have to cringe, as provocateurs and violent extremists each do their best to vindicate the other’s worst beliefs; we shudder, because we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.
Update: 5:58 p.m. ET: This story gets more and more bizarre. This afternoon, the cast and crew of Innocence of Muslims said they were “100% not behind this film” and that they had been misled about its content and subject. One actress seen in the trailer told Gawker the cast members were told they were performing in a movie about ancient Egyptian life, whose lead character was not Muhammad but “Master George.” Earlier today, On the Media’s Sarah Abdurrahman noticed that the trailer’s clumsy dialogue edits and dubs largely involved dialogue with references to Muhammad and religion—it would seem, to conceal the nature of the film from the very people making it. The pseudonymous filmmaker “Sam Becile,” whatever his true identity, was apparently out not just to influence world events but to put one over on his own cast.