As it stands this Monday morning, the 14-minute teaser trailer of The Innocence of Muslims – a crappy, toe-curlingly amateurish film that insults the Prophet in a number of contentious ways – has set off anti-American rioting all across the Muslim world, resulting, amongst other things, in death of the much respected US Ambassador to Libya. Now I have my personal opinion about religion, which I won’t go into here much, but suffice it to say, whilst I agree you have every right to be offended, I don’t think being offended gives you the right to abdicate your self-control. I was offended by “Sex and the City 2” for instance, but you didn’t see me burning anyone’s embassy.
For me, William Saletan summed it up brilliantly in Slate:
You’re living in the age of the Internet. Your religion will be mocked, and the mockery will find its way to you. Get over it.
Of course I don’t really think the wave of violence is about America, or even about this (dreadful) film, but is all about political points scoring at a local level – which is why we all need to take a deep breathe. And to do that, I’m going to talk about the film’s location and the controversy around the permission to film.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, “The Innocence of Muslims” was partially filmed on a set built for the CBS TV show “JAG” by Paramount’s TV unit. Other parts were shot on an area of the Blue Cloud Film Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, called “Baghdad Square” that’s often used by TV and movie productions – including “Iron Man,” “Arrested Development” and “CSI” – to recreate Middle Eastern war zones. The Film Permit has since been pulled from public view.
Now, this is a classic – if violent – example of the Film Commissioner’s dilemma. Is your job to create immediate local economic development by getting actors hired and equipment rented and locations booked, with no input, no “censorship”, of the script/content of the production? Or should you base the services you provide only on pre-approval of a film’s content? In the West, where we (still) value free speech, we tend for the former. I still lean towards this as a general position; a crappy film is a crappy film that’s unlikely to be widely seen (except of course, flames will be fanned by fundementalists for their own nefarious purposes) so rather facilitate the shoot. I don’t know if I’m right in that – and I’ve broken this rule myself in the past, when I’ve refused permits for shoots that might be offensive. I guess that’s why it’s a dilemma.