The world premiere of a movie called The Innocence of Bin Laden was held on 30 June at the Vine Theatre, a small, run-down picture house in one of Hollywood's least salubrious neighbourhoods.
Fewer than a dozen people attended two screenings of the hour-long independent film, which boasted acting so wooden, production values so ropey, and a plot so non-existent that many wondered if they were watching a failed spoof.
As they left, the audience encountered a middle-aged man who claimed to be "Sam", the film's director. Today, "Sam" is a wanted man. A heavily edited version of his movie, dubbed into Arabic and uploaded to YouTube, has sparked violent attacks on US embassies in Cairo, Tripoli, and Yemen, along with the brutal murder of America's ambassador to Libya.
Yet for all the rage and recrimination, no one yet knows exactly how The Innocence of Bin Laden, which has since been renamed Innocence of Muslims, came into being. And the person best placed to tell us, the elusive "Sam", who uses the surname "Bacile", seems not to exist.
What we can establish is this: in August last year, FilmLA, a quango which oversees local movie-making, issued a permit for a film called Desert Warriors. Described as a war drama, it was to be shot over five days, partially at the Blue Cloud Movie Ranch in Santa Clarita, which boasts a Middle Eastern set.
Several dozen actors were hired, mostly via Craigslist. In a statement, they yesterday claimed to have been "grossly misled" about the project. A second key player in the film's creation was Steve Klein, an insurance agent from Riverside County who acted as "script consultant". Klein, a far-right activist, yesterday told the Los Angeles Times how he helped organise June's premiere. "The idea was to locate … folks who believed Osama bin Laden was a great guy and to try to get them to come."
That, of course, failed. So the film's creators turned to the internet. In mid-July, a trailer was uploaded to YouTube by a user called "Sam Bacile". It sank without trace. But a version in Arabic appeared on the site last week, and went viral.
That film had been heavily promoted on Facebook by Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Christian activist, and virulent critic of Islam. When protests began, the Associated Press contacted Mr Sadek, who said he'd be able to persuade the film-maker to give a telephone interview. "Bacile" told AP that he'd made the movie for $5m with donations from 100 Jews. He described himself as an Israeli Jew and a California real estate developer, but no one named Sam Bacile lives in California, and key details of his story were fabricated.
Yesterday, the phone on which "Sam" gave his interview was traced to the house of one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old, Egyptian member of the Coptic Christian Church, a faith which faces persecution in many Muslim countries.
Nakoula lives in LA, has previous convictions for using aliases to defraud banks, and has admitted having "managed logistics" for the makers of the controversial film. But he currently denies being "Sam Bacile".