PBS: What didn’t make it into your film that you would have liked to have included?
Nina Davenport: Many, many hours of Muthana and I arguing and fighting; some of it was painful to watch, but much of it was rather humorous.
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 — and also save his life — Schreiber brings him on as a PA. At the same time, he 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, will air on Independent Lens on 30 December. A smart, self-deconstructing look at how movies intersect with reality, the documentary presents Muthana’s encounters with The West. Challenging and sometimes 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, as he acts out his growing frustrations.
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. 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.” Everything is Illuminated star Elijah Wood proclaims, “The movie we’re making is crossing a cultural divide,” you know, like bringing Muthana out of Iraq. Producer Peter Saraf punctuates: “If we could somehow get to know Muthana, he could only enrich the experience of making the movie.”
It’s sounding like Muthana embodies a potential for the Americans’ moral and emotional salvation. Their disillusionment when he doesn’t prove abjectly grateful and dedicated to their goals is striking, perhaps especially as they find the fault in him. None of them anticipates that he is his own complex person, with a background both troubled and privileged. “I belong for a middle class family,” he explains, with a fine house in Baghdad, a mother who does his laundry and cooks his meals, and, before the war, a driver. After the U.S. invasion, his life is thrown into disarray: he and his friends could no longer party or pursue their studies.
In Prague, the American filmmakers lament that Muthana resents being tasked with the mundane work of a PA. “The most important scene was rolling,” he reports, “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 voice is 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 what he sees as silly make-work. After spending a few hours on the assignment, he abandons it for a night out with friends. Davenport’s camera comes along to the club, low-angled to show dancers in red pulsing light. The next morning, he fudges what’s happened. After the meeting with Cooper, Davenport asks him, “Why’d you tell them you 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 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.” But if he understands the Americans’ exploitation — of him, of Iraq, of the war — Muthana isn’t always able to defend against it effectively. He’s got his work cut out for him. Turtletaub is troubled that Muthana expresses support for George Bush (“He changed my life”). “Here I am, a left-wing American in terms of my politics,” says the producer. “I had to come to terms with [the fact that] you weren’t opposed to the war.”
Operation Filmmaker exposes such emotional, ideological rifts repeatedly. And it uses them, quite brilliantly, for a kind of self-interrogation, revealing its own part in the manipulations and assumptions, however inadvertent, however benevolent, and however self-serving. When Muthana gets a next gig (and crucial visa extension) working on Doom, which is also shooting in Prague, Operation Filmmaker finds another set of convenient and resonant visual metaphors. 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 also provides all manner of gore, destruction, and mayhem, with zombies to boot.
Cutting between bloody fake corpses and TV footage of ravaged Baghdad, Davenport’s movie includes as well footage shot by Muthana’s friends (to whom she has sent cameras, “to find out what Muthana’s life would have been like in Baghdad”). The connections between U.S. entertainment versions of violence and the war’s actual 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. He explains that he cannot go back to Iraq, precisely because of the nature of his employment with the Americans: “I go there, 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.”
There’s no going back for Davenport either. She sticks with her subject even when he leaves the American sets and heads to film school in London, still seeking sponsorship. 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 asks for advice from her original partner on the project, the MTV filmmaker who “discovered” Muthana and who has long since left Operation Filmmaker. He turns his camera on her as he interprets what’s happened:
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 Filmmaker cannot reconcile the hurt feelings, the betrayals, or the disenchantments that it reveals. In offering so many different angles on the vexed relations between filmmaker and subject, it shows, imperfectly and compellingly, how motives, intentions, and beliefs fall short. In doing so, it reveals how films, politics, and desires do their work.