You can forgive the American public for being shocked at the recent violence in Basra [in March]. From the lack of press coverage that’s out there, they probably thought the war was over.
—Greg Mitchell, “Whatever Happened to Iraq?” (AJR June/July 2008)
It was difficult to get funding in the U.S. for the film since the protagonist is not entirely likeable.
—Nina Davenport (IndieWire 3 June 2008)
My life is like a sine wave, everything is changed between moment and moment. This is fucking funny.
Muthana Mohmed arrives in Prague with high hopes. The subject of an MTV documentary about Iraqi youth in 2003, he’s had the great good fortune to be spotted by Liev Schreiber, earnest and enterprising first time director of Everything is Illuminated. Believing he might help the self-declared movie lover enter the industry, Schreiber brings him on as a PA, and oh by the way, asks Nina Davenport to document Muthana’s experience on set and among Americans. Thus the 25-year-old Iraqi is swept up in a swirl of dreams, expectations, and ambitions, only some of which are his.
Davenport’s film, Operation Filmmaker, tracks and also helps to Muthana’s encounters with the West. Engaging, provocative, and often discomforting, the film reveals increasing tensions between Muthana and his would-be benefactors, including Davenport herself. Indeed, as she’s drawn into conversations and debates with her subject concerning his disappointments and desires, the film includes explanatory and sometimes accusatory intertitles (“I give Muthana money again but I’m starting to feel there are no limits to his demands”) as well as repeated shots following Muthana along sidewalks, his impatience and frustrations visible.
As its subject shifts tone, the film also changes subject, becoming less about Muthana per se, and more how documentaries work, the blurred lines between maker and interviewee, observation and intervention. While no documentary can claim absolute objectivity, this one offers an especially keen examination of how that ideal inevitably falls short. If some viewers have seen this as a failure, as Davenport’s loss of distance, as Muthana’s “unlikable” self-presentation, the film’s representation of their twisting and turning relationship is, for all its complexities and displeasures, fascinating and revealing.
From the start, Muthana inspires contorted confessions from his well-intentioned supporters, interviews that tell as much about the speaker as he or she seems to be saying about Muthana. Even as he describes his aims for the “project,” Schreiber begins to sound like a man with talking points: “I felt a little guilty,” the director says (in reference to the war and disquieting images he saw in the MTV doc), “and I was also really, really intrigued by him and I wanted to know who he was.” Likewise, Elijah Wood, star of Everything is Illuminated, who notes,” The movie we’re making is crossing a cultural divide,” as is the gesture of bringing in Muthana. Producer Peter Saraf punctuates: “If we could somehow get to know Muthana, he could only enrich the experience of making the movie.”
To hear the Americans say it, Muthana embodies their moral and emotional salvation. Their disillusionment when he doesn’t prove abjectly grateful and dedicated to their projects(s) is striking, even as they suggest the fault is his. What none of them anticipate is that Muthana is his own complex person, with his own needs and expectations. “I belong for a middle class family,” he explains, a fine house in Baghdad, a mother who does his laundry and cooks his meals, and, before the war, a driver. With the U.S. invasion, his life, along with those of his friends, was suddenly thrown into disarray: they could no longer go out, party, or pursue their studies. They were and are, quite like many U.S. 20somethings, at once insecure and cocky, beleaguered and relatively privileged.
Still, the American filmmakers are surprised that he resents being tasked with the mundane work of a PA. “The most important scene was rolling,” he laments, “while I was mixing the [trail mix] snacks [for producers Saraf and Marc Turtletaub]. It’s not my fucking job. I saw worse days than this, but at least the worse days were more interesting.” Davenport’s camera tracks along with Muthana as he complains, her voice audible from off-screen: “Whose job is it if it’s not yours?” “It’s not mine,” he repeats, intently. Unsure exactly what he wants, Muthana finds ways to annoy even the most sanguine-seeming of his patrons. When unit publicist Emma Cooper instructs him to “learn how to edit,” by putting together a blooper reel for the wrap party (“You’re looking for people who make mistakes,” she says helpfully, “that’s why it’s called a blooper or a gag reel”), Muthana resists in his own way. After spending a few hours on the assignment, he abandons it for a night out with his friends. Davenport’s camera comes along to the club, low-angled to show dancers in red pulsing light. The next morning, he doesn’t exactly admit why the reel is unfinished, at which point Davenport asks him, “Why’d you tell them you’d went through all the scenes if you didn’t?” Muthana sighs, “It’s a temporary solution because I’m thinking of something to say.”
Such assessment might be applied to much of what goes on in the film. When Davenport asks him to describe what it was like in Iraq, Muthana looks into her lens and says, “I’m not able to do that. I can’t translate the image by words, it’s so hard and so painful… You just want stories, that’s it. You just want an interesting story to watch on the television and spend a beautiful moment, even that, over somebody’s feelings, that’s what you want to do.” Though he plainly understands the Americans’ exploitation—of him, of Iraq, of the war—Muthana isn’t always able to defend against it effectively. But look what he’s up against: when Turtletaub learns that Muthana supports George Bush (“He changed my life”), the producer has to process, even as he’s also negotiating with Entertainment Weekly for a promo piece based on Muthana. “It’s a high concept thing,” he tells Muthana, “We’re making this movie about young people connecting across a cultural divide. And like the experience of these two American Jewish guys here to make a movie with an Iraqi, there’s a cultural divide, like that we have to cross. Here I am, a left-wing American, in terms of my politics… So I had to come to terms with [the fact that] you weren’t opposed to the war.”
Again and again, Operation Filmmaker seems almost to stumble on such revelations. Yet this is its cagy brilliance too, its consistent capacity for self-interrogation, its exposure of its own part in the manipulations and assumptions, however inadvertent, however benevolent, and however self-serving. When Muthana gets a next gig (and visa extension) working on Doom, also shooting in Prague, the film finds another set of convenient and resonant visual metaphor. Not only does the Rock take a liking to the charismatic Muthana (“The irony of Muthana is that he’s gone through hell and back and then some, but yet he’s still warm and he still finds time to smile. The Iraqi people should be really, really proud of him for what he’s gone through, for what he’s done”), but the film set provides all manner of gore, with zombies to boot.
Cutting between bloody fake corpses and TV footage of ravaged Baghdad, the film includes as well footage shot by Muthana’s friends (to whom Davenport has sent cameras, “to find out what Muthana’s life would have been like in Baghdad,” another imaginative projection). The connections between U.S. entertainment versions of violence and the war’s effects (“Don’t come back no matter what,” his brother tells Muthana on tape, “Even if you have to start from zero”) come to a head when Muthana begins seeking asylum, first in the Czech Republic, then through his U.S. sponsors, and at last when he makes it to film school in London. “I go there,” he says, “I’m gonna expect any moment somebody gonna put a bullet in my head, back because I’m working with the Americans, somebody think I’m working with a Jewish director. An American, a Jewish movie, defending the Jewish theory.” Everything is Illuminated becomes the reason not to “go back.”
And there’s no going back either for Davenport, who tells her subject more than once that she’s hanging on in hope of a happy ending. As their mutual tensions escalate (at one point he pushes her with the camera across his apartment, her voice off-screen documenting, “You’re hurting me”), he tells her to stop filming, then refuses to see her. Davenport turns to her original partner on the project, the MTV filmmaker who “discovered” Muthana and who has long since left Operation Filmmaker. He has his own camera on her as he interprets what’s gone on:
As an MTV project, it’s an opportunity for some people to make a cool nifty project while they take their cameras and make these sort of semi-factious stories about other people. In this case “the people” is a desperate Iraqi who will do anything. I’ve stopped blaming him for that. Being dependent on other people with ulterior motives must be really hard emotionally. He can never trust that person. He can never trust you he can never trust me. And you’re his world right now, someone with an ulterior motive, someone with another agenda.
Operation Filmmakercannot reconcile the hurt feelings, the seeming betrayals, the disenchantments that it reveals. But in offering a series of looks and very different angles into the vexed relations between filmmaker and subject, it makes clear, imperfectly and compellingly, how motives, intentions, and beliefs can only fall short.