Icarus Films // 2007 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // January 22nd, 2009
"Hollywood gave him the chance of a lifetime."
Operation Filmmaker starts out simply enough as a few Hollywood filmmakers lift an aspiring director out of Baghdad's rubble and give him a job on a big movie shoot -- a chance to pursue his dream. With patience and tenacity, director Nina Davenport follows the gradual erosion of this "good deed" until it dispenses some unsettling lessons about American foreign policy and even human nature.
Following the strange odyssey of young Iraqi film student Muthana Mohmed, Operation Filmmaker begins by explaining how actor-director Liev Schreiber saw Muthana on MTV and was inspired to help him out. Muthana's film school had been bombed during the American invasion of Baghdad, so Schreiber decided to fly Muthana to Prague and make him an intern on the set of Everything Is Illuminated. The production also hired Nina Davenport to document Muthana's experiences there.
Expecting a quick shoot and a fairly simple story, Davenport found tensions between Muthana and his American patrons that she hadn't anticipated. She decided to stick around after the shoot ended and the Americans left, following Muthana as he struggled to extend his visa to stay in Prague, not wanting to return to his war-torn homeland. She ended up filming Muthana many times over a period of 2-3 years as he continued to avoid a return to Iraq.
Given the set-up of Operation Filmmaker, a seasoned documentary viewer would likely expect one of two narratives. On the simplest level, it could end up being a feel-good story of individual salvation that distracts us from the larger injustices of the Iraq War. Taking another step toward sophistication, it could reverse those expectations and become a story that allegorically condemns America's actions in Iraq by condemning the American filmmakers who give Muthana a job for a few months and then abandon him. What is most compelling about Operation Filmmaker is that it rejects both of these narrative paths by pushing deep enough and sticking around long enough to paint all of its players in shades of gray, including Muthana himself.
Much to their chagrin, Schreiber and his producer, Peter, gradually discover that Muthana is not as grateful, as humble, and as hard-working as they must have expected he would be. As it turns out, the poor filmmaker that they rescued from a dangerous war zone isn't content to start from the bottom rung of Hollywood's ladder, like everyone else does. He balks at being asked to bring people coffee or make copies, and even when he gets a fun editing assignment, he'd rather party all night than work on it. As Everything Is Illuminated's star, Elijah Wood, explains from their set: "Everybody was giving him a lot of attention and trying to make sure that everything was all right at the beginning. And then I think when the reality of...No, you're here to work. That's all great that we've helped you and that you're here now, but you're here to work,' I think it kind of confused him. Because I think to a certain degree he enjoyed being that celebrity figure." Soon Muthana slips from simply not doing his job well to not doing his job well and asking for a lot of additional favors from his benefactors. He wants money because he's spent all his, he wants a job on a future production so that he can stay in Prague, he wants help extending his visa even though he hasn't taken any of the necessary steps to do it himself, he wants a gift of camera equipment to go back to Iraq and make a film.
As the situation between the Americans and this Iraqi deteriorates and responsible extraction looks harder and harder for the Americans, Davenport wisely begins to layer the story with disheartening parallels to the larger war in Iraq. Peter makes the connection clear in an interview: "My feeling about the United States' invasion of Iraq is,...Well, what the f*ck did you think was going to happen, you idiot? And should I be thinking that about myself? Well, probably, but I'm not there yet." Whether she realized it at the time Peter uttered those words or not, Davenport eventually finds herself in that same idiot position. Committing to stick with Muthana after his internship with Schreiber ends in order to make this feature-length documentary about him, Davenport begins to realize she's caught in her own moral and professional quagmire. Muthana comes to resent the documentary project, to see it as a way for Davenport to win money and success by commandeering his story, and he soon wants compensation. Here we have to recognize Muthana as at least partially justified, as much as we might be on Davenport's side. One of the best exchanges in the film nicely encapsulates these tensions between American and Iraqi, between documentarian and subject:
Davenport: "I try to keep filming you until you get to a point of
something good happening. I'm gonna have to move on to another film at some
Muthana: "What's your next? A guy from Afghanistan?"
Brimming with ethical complexity and insight into current events, Operation Filmmaker is rare even among documentaries in its capacity to provoke questions and to avoid answers. Boiled down to their simplest levels, the lessons I learned from the film are: 1) people coming from horrible situations who deserve our sympathy can still turn out to be slacker jerks, and 2) slacker jerks can still make fair accusations about the way they're being exploited. I suspect the lessons of the film will vary greatly among different viewers, and I'd highly recommend watching it yourself to see what you learn.
On the technical side, image quality on this release is pretty good for a low-profile DV documentary. Davenport makes good use of the beautiful locations of Everything Is Illuminated and the sights of Prague that Muthana experiences to spice up her image track. In the audio department, dialogue can definitely be hard to comprehend, hurt by the documentary production situation and by heavy accents and imperfect English. Subtitles would help, but unfortunately none are included. We do get a few quality extras, including an interesting interview with Davenport that runs for seven minutes.
In that brief time she makes a lot of insightful comments about wanting to convey the true ethical ambiguities of the situation, about choosing to include herself in the work and figuring out how much of herself to use, and about how terrible the experience actually was. Her frankness here is refreshing, as she admits readily that if she had to go back and do the project all over again, knowing what she knows now, she would "never in a million years" agree to endure it. The other extra is a set of five deleted scenes, mostly comprised of Muthana's video diaries. These are well worth watching, as they give us an enhanced sense of Muthana's attitude toward his situation and his personality. Of particular focus are his begrudging attempts to do his own housework, which his mother has always done for him. We also get a bit more of the acrimonious relationship between Muthana and Davenport, and some snippets of Davenport's own video diary venting her frustrations about Muthana.
My one complaint about this enthralling documentary is that it sometimes stretches too far in its desire to make parallels between the Hollywood-Muthana situation and the larger America-Iraq situation. The attitude of Operation Filmmaker is basically that Schreiber and his crew approached Muthana with good intentions that turned out to be naïve and perhaps even destructive. Many of us do not hold such a generous view of America's invasion of Iraq.
Ultimately, this fascinating and disturbing documentary manages to comment both on its particular historical moment and on human nature, more generally. As much as it is about the specific sticky relations between two countries in the first years of this new millennium, it is also about "the human tendency to project one's own ideas and values onto another person, and our willingness to believe what we want to believe," as Davenport expansively puts it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site