Every young actor wants to get noticed, but not by mobs burning flags and storming consulates. One of the ancillary outrages of the world's most infamous new bad-movie trailer is that the actors in Innocence of Muslims had no idea they were participating in a slur against Islam.
Performers in the ultra-low-budget film say they were given a false title and plot line – about tribes fighting over a grounded comet in ancient Egypt – and lines of dialogue that were later dubbed over with nasty remarks about the prophet Muhammed. Of all the actors' nightmares that can come true in postproduction, this must be one of the worst.
"It's painful to see how our faces were used to create something so atrocious without us knowing anything about it at all," says Georgian actress Anna Gurji, in a letter posted on writer Neil Gaiman's website. Gurji described the filmmaker as "very amiable" and "respectful," which suggests the shadowy Sam Bacile (a.k.a. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula) was perhaps the best actor on the set.
The ease with which Nakoula managed to transform the doubly fictitious Desert Warriors into the blasphemous Innocence of Muslims says a lot about the fragile covenant between cinematic word and image. Decades of commercial and political ads on TV have sharpened people's sensitivity to the propaganda potential of clever writing and editing. But there's also a world of mischief available to anyone willing to crack the bond between what is shown and what is said.
Taking the words out of someone's mouth and stuffing others in is, of course, a regular thing in the film business; it's how most of the world gets to see movies or TV shows made in other languages. Often, the dialogue is changed in translation to suit the mores or sensitivities of the receiving audience. A creatively dubbed German version of an episode of Magnum P.I. transformed a story about Mossad agents hunting ex-Nazis into one about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Ingmar Bergman fictionalized this kind of overhaul in his 1968 film Shame, in which a woman (played by Liv Ullmann) is forced at gunpoint to speak her mind on camera about the civil war that has brought armed men to her farmhouse. "I don't have any political opinion," she stammers. Later in the film, she is arrested by the other side for collaborating with the enemy. They show her the newsreel made from her interview, dubbed so that she seems to say, "We've suffered under the oppression … I wish your troops victory." Ullmann's shocked reaction probably resembles what Gurji looked like when she heard about the man-in-the-street reviews of her work from Libya and Egypt.
Woody Allen went the other way in his debut film What's Up Tiger Lily?, dubbing an Asian secret-agent movie with a new comic script about the search for a stolen egg-salad recipe. Most of the laughs came from the obvious disjunction between word and image.
More recently, a scene from Downfall, a 2004 film about Hitler's last days, has become a favourite parody vehicle on YouTube. Knowyourmeme.com reports at least 1,000 satirical re-writes of Bruno Ganz's meltdown as Hitler learns that the war is lost. In this case, the subtitled English scripts – about everything from the subprime mortgage implosion to last spring's NDP leadership race – grate against the original German audio. The scene as shot is fully intact, with a layer of dissonant text literally printed over it.
Nakoula's dissonant text, by contrast, was hidden from the actors he treated with apparent respect during the shoot. They trusted him, at the basic level of expecting that their words would appear in the film as spoken. There's some irony in the fact that much of the filming took place in front of a green screen, later filled in with static desert imagery. The actors accepted that kind of dissemblance as normal, little imagining that they themselves would become green screens for blasphemy.
The anti-Muslim dubbing, like everything else in the film, is clumsy. Names or whole lines are dropped in using another performer's voice. The deceit is so obvious that you have to wonder why Nakoula even bothered with actors and a fake script. He could have taken public-domain footage, suppressed the sound, and worked up his own What's Up, Muhammed?, with hateful slurs instead of laughs.
For millions of Muslims, it doesn't matter how the words got into the film, or that another cast member is so furious with Nakoula that she's suing him. No doubt many people enraged by this tawdry propaganda haven't actually seen it, and don't care that Nakoula is a nobody who happens to live in the U.S. They've supplied their own text for what they think this is about, and that text is much more difficult to dislodge than the words of any actor.