The Innocence of Muslims

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.

The First Film Commissioner

March 09’s Vanity Fair has a great feature on Harry Goulding, the pioneering Colorado-born rancher who, it could be argued, did the work of the world’s first film commissioner…..

It’s worth reading the whole article to be once again reminded of how the movies can impact so forcefully on how we see the world, but the bit where Harry goes to Hollywood in 1938, armed with a book of location pics of Monument Valley, is particularly priceless……

The way the story goes, Harry learned that United Artists was looking to film a Western on location. Harry went to work, enlisting the help of Josef Muench, a superb photographer who had first seen Monument Valley in 1935 and, during the course of some 350-odd trips there, would shoot some of the most memorable photographs of the place ever taken. At Harry’s request, Muench made up an album of 8-by-10 scenes of the valley. Then Harry and his wife loaded the “bedroll, coffee pot, grub,” as Harry later put it, and drove to Hollywood. 

……Harry said. “I’m going to get in there or go to jail. I know I’ve got something they need.… You show me the right door to go in down there, their main door, and I’ll go on from there.”

So Harry went over to United Artists with his wife, who waited in the car and knitted. He made it to a receptionist, and he told her he wanted to talk to someone about a new Western that was going to be made. She looked at him as if he were crazy and told him he couldn’t see anybody without an appointment. Harry said he didn’t have an appointment, and she reiterated that there was no way he was going to see anyone. Harry said that was fine, then went to get his bedroll from the car, because he had no intention of leaving and figured he might as well be comfortable. At that point the receptionist called someone.

The location manager for the Western Stagecoach, which was about to be shot, came out all indignant and riled. He was livid at Harry Goulding for wasting his time, this dumb-ass western son of a bitch thinking he knew anything about the movie business, until he got a glimpse of the pictures that Harry had with him. Then he wanted to know where they had come from. Then the director John Ford looked at the pictures. And it wasn’t long after that that Ford decided to use Monument Valley as a backdrop for Stagecoach…..


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What is a Film Commission to do? First you get word that Hollywood is coming to your area. There’s even an A-ish list star attached to the project – Mr. Fergilicious, Josh Duhamel. And the story is actually set in your region. It’s even called Turistas – Tourists! Wahey. Lots of opportunities to show off your fantastic locations, promote tourism, encourage visitors.

And then the movie turns round and shows that your bus drivers are reckless, your prettiest girls are whores, your locals are unfriendly, untrustworthy, psychopathic or downright evil and that even the Turistas title has a sub-heading – GO HOME. Whether you go home with all your body parts is fundamental to the script. Ah, right then……

Turistas is not a great movie, so it probably won’t be widely seen. Imagine that when Leo di Caprio made it to The Beach, every single person he met was a homicidal maniac, then you’ve got the jist of the plot. So, no, it doesn’t show Brazil in a good light. I think maybe the film makers felt a bit guilty about this afterwards – there’s a fulsome thankyou to the people of Brazil for their kindness and co-operation with the making of the movie in the credits, and apparently Mr. Duhamel even apologised for its approach in the Today Show. Ouch.


Caught Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel on tv again last night – a beautiful, gut wrenching and entirely appalling exposition of the confusions and mistakes and misunderstandings that separate us. In light of the xenophobic wrath unfolding in Johannesburg right now, it’s a timely reminder of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – our humanity connects us, a person is a person through other persons. But then, Desmond Tutu is my hero.

Starring a toned-down Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Babel features four stories that revolve around the central tale of an American couple on a vacation in Morocco. She is badly wounded when a bullet is fired through a tour bus window by a child playing with a gun. Meanwhile, back in America, the couple’s children travel into Mexico illegally with the family’s housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), to attend her son’s wedding near Tijuana. They are accompanied by Amelia’s unstable nephew (Gael García Bernal). And far away in Tokyo, a deaf teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) spins through the emotional upheavals of adolescence, disability and her mother’s suicide.

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Each place has its own aural and visual palette, and the fine cinematography distinctly captures the harsh light and dessicated landscapes of Morocco and the Mexican border, as well as the neon chaos of Tokyo. As the movie jumps from place to place and time to time, we learn that the narratives are intertwined and, inspite of the misunderstandings of language (the cast speak Spanish, Berber, Japanese and sign language, as well as English) that everyone is somehow linked.

There’s an interesting insight into the director’s choice of locations and the impact of those choices on the film via the production notes at Movie Grande.

A couple of things stand out for me. Talking of the experience of filming on the edge of the Sahara, Iñárritu says: “The heat was brutal and uncomfortable, but it’s precisely what this story is about. This was not only method acting but method execution.”

And at the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo -the only urban location – was rife with its own challenges. Says Iñárritu; “Things work slowly there and there’s no film commission to help you through. There’s no permission to shoot anything, so you are always escaping from the police at every corner. We had to be brave and work like a guerilla-style crew, ready to improvise, moving fast.”

And that’s why we need Film Commissions……

Kenya Film Commission launches E-Newsletter

Back in January 2008, Martin Cuff Consulting assisted the Kenya Film Commission with the planning, scheduling and organisation of a familiarization tour to a selection of Film Commissions, Film Organisations, production houses, film studios and film schools in South Africa. The March 2008 edition of Screen Africa covers the visit here.

Today, the KFC launched its brand new Newsletter, which we’re happy to see includes extremely positive feedback from its visit – as well as some concrete goals for further interaction with the SA industry.

Imbongi Awards

CFC Logo
The Cape Film Commission created the IMBONGI AWARDS in 2007. IMBONGI means Praise Singer, and the IMBONGI AWARDS are intended to sing the praises of the film sector in the Western Cape. The goal of the Imbongi Awards is to
• raise the industry’s profile
• recognise its achievements,
• reflect the complex, multi-level nature of the sector
• stimulate excellence throughout the value chain of a production.

To access Martin Cuff Consulting’s programme for the CFC’s Imbongi Awards, please click here

Shirley Valentine

We have a pet hate in our family; the incessant and omnipresent Greek Tourism ad that tops and tails movie news on CNN. At 59 seconds, the (admittedly well-produced) spot seems longer than the snippet of film news it supports.

Now in comparison, last night we caught Shirley Valentine on tv. It’s a great little movie (Tom Conti’s accent notwithstanding) filmed in the village of Agios Ioannis on the island of Mykonos, and it effortlessly exudes the charm and simplicity of the Aegean. It simply makes you want to reinvent your life in the Greek sunshine. In fact, the movie (and stage play) have been so influential in positioning Greece as a lifestyle choice that “doing a Shirley Valentine” has entered the popular lexicon as an expression of escapism.