THE JERUSALEM POST
Dec. 9, 2009
Special to The Jerusalem Post
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's attempt to pretend that he interviewed a notorious terrorist leader in the film Bruno may cost him $110 million in damages - 80 percent of the movie's gross box office earnings.
That's the sum demanded by Ayman Abu Aita, a Palestinian grocer and peace activist from Bethlehem who says his life has been ruined by Baron Cohen's movie.
Abu Aita has filed a suit against Baron Cohen, US talk-show host David Letterman, Bruno director Larry Charles and NBC Universal Studios, demanding $110m. in libel damages.
In the film, Baron Cohen's gay character claims to travel to a refugee camp in Lebanon to meet a leader of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, and tries to provoke his host into kidnapping him before a translator has Abu Aita saying, "Get out!"
In the movie, a caption describes Abu Aita as "Terrorist group leader, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade."
In an interview on The Late Show with David Letterman last July, Baron Cohen said his production team had found this "real terrorist" through a CIA contact, and he had taken extra security to the "secret location" because of the threat to his personal safety.
"What could people see that they've never seen before on film?" Baron Cohen told Letterman. "We thought one thing would be a comedian interviewing a terrorist.
"We called up a contact we had at the CIA and said, 'Can you help us? We're looking to find a terrorist.' After a few months, we found somebody who actually lived in a town that had a terrorist from a pretty nasty group called the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who are kind of the No. 1 suicide bombers out there… The guy picks a secret location."
In fact, the scene was filmed at the Everest Hotel - a well-known tourist spot in Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank, in an area under Israeli control and right next to an army base. There was no need for bodyguards.
"At no time was Cohen in any danger," says Abu Aita. "Nor was the interview at a 'secret location.' In fact, the interview took place at a spot selected by Cohen - the Everest Hotel - which, although located in the West Bank, is in an area designated by the Israeli military as 'Zone C,' which is under full Israeli military control."
Abu Aita is a well-known peace activist who lives in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Sahur - and contrary to the translation, he never says "Get out!" in the film. He claims he was tricked into meeting Baron Cohen, thinking he was a German filmmaker producing a film about the Palestinian cause.
More seriously, he says he is a firm opponent of the terrorists, and the depiction in Bruno is a harmful slur against his character.
In the libel suit, filed last Wednesday in federal court in Washington, Abu Aita describes the Aksa Martyrs Brigades as "a notorious terrorist group, culpable in the wanton slaughter of dozens of innocent people and in the targeted assassination of many others."
The father of four, who is a Greek Orthodox Christian and Treasurer of the Holy Land Trust - a peace charity that promotes reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians - says he has received death threats and suffered from depression and anxiety since the movie's release and Baron Cohen's interview on Letterman's talk show. Abu Aita says he now fears for the well-being of his wife and family, both in the West Bank and in the US.
Abu Aita was imprisoned by Israel, but never found guilty of any offense. He says he is "a peace-loving person who abhors violence" and a regular visitor to the United States - something that would be impossible if he were on a terrorist watch list.