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Crossing Boundaries: Nina Davenport's Operation Filmmaker

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Icarus Fims)

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Friday, June 06, 2008



Operation Filmmaker
Directed by Nina Davenport
(Icarus Films)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Despite feigning journalistic and sociological “objectivity,” documentaries create heroes and villains just as often and prejudicially as their fiction film counterparts. In this sense Operation Filmmaker is a remarkable film not for dispensing with clear demarcations between the real people we’re meant to “root” for and those we are not — this has been accomplished countless times before — but by unintentionally implicating the filmmaker among its ambiguously motivated cast of characters.

The main word here is “unintentionally.” Any director with a guilty conscience can plan to call attention to the sizable distance between himself and the film’s subjects in order to excuse his privileged role on the controlling side of the camera — witness the lamentable Hurricane Katrina documentary The Axe in the Attic — but few actually learn about the problems of that privilege in the midst of shooting and then successfully display the painful process in the final result. This seems to have occurred in the making of Operation Filmmaker, Nina Davenport’s slow-building disaster of a documentary that began as a simple feel-good profile of Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old Iraqi with cinematic aspirations given the chance to intern on the set of an American movie production in the Czech Republic, and ended as a case of manipulation, exploitation, and bruised egos.

A few years ago Muthana was singled out by MTV’s True Life series as a young man with a dream of making films held back from doing so by the chaos brought on by the fall of Baghdad and the American-led occupation of Iraq. Everything Is Illuminated director Liev Shreiber was so touched by Muthana’s story that he and producer Peter Saraf paid for Muthana to become part of the EII team. But upon arriving on set Muthana almost immediately alienated everyone around him, whining about typical intern shit-work (“I saw worse days than this, but at least the worse days were more interesting”), vainly wanting attention to be focused on him, disappointing with an unfashionably pro-Bush political stance, and flubbing the larger responsibilities given to him.

Worse, Muthana refused to take seriously until too late the growing violence in Iraq and his golden opportunity to avoid it. Using video cameras sent by Davenport to document their own experiences back home, Muthana’s friends and family desperately urge him to remain abroad, but Muthana spends more time goofing off and partying than looking into visa extensions or opportunities to stay in Europe. Afraid of further upsetting his hosts, he passive-aggressively tiptoes around asking for money and visa help. He upsets them anyway.

Once Muthana receives an extension to stay in Prague and a job on the set of Doom, Operation Filmmaker turns into a struggle between him and his various sources of favors — Saraf, Doom star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Davenport herself. A desperate Muthana means to extract as much money (eventually to attend a London film school) and visa renewals from them as possible, and who can blame him when the news from Baghdad is so bleak? But where Saraf and The Rock do their parts and then step aside when Muthana’s demands exceed the reasonable, Davenport keeps getting sucked in, and her documentary starts to become a dangerously unethical pay-to-play extortion with Muthana calling the shots. Muthana, thinking he’s being exploited (“You don’t care about Iraqis!”) with no monetary gain to show for it, ultimately quits Davenport’s film, not without some nasty arguments and physical altercations.

The train wreck factor most certainly makes it a compelling watch, but that’s not why Operation Filmmaker transcends lurid fascination. What the film really spotlights is a cultural clash violently, awkwardly resisting the tenuous unifying powers of art. The Westerners — including Davenport — see in Muthana the protagonist of a set narrative, someone who will fulfill the gift of their charity, even while his stubborn, arrogant and callow personality prevents an easy path to the storybook ending. Muthana in turn finds himself in a world so radically different than the one from which he’s been plucked that adjustment becomes an ordeal. “I’m trying to be like you, like all of you,” he tries to explain during the rough going, but with only a constantly trailing film crew by his side, it’s nearly impossible to make his identity crisis relatable to a true friend or sympathizer.

Davenport and others in the film make the obvious connection between the good-intentions-gone-awry quasi-catastrophe of their Muthana experience with the Bush Administration’s condescending and insulting justifications for the Iraq War (after interviewing him one last time at the London film school, Davenport ties a bow with a title card reading “I had hoped for a happy ending . . . now I’m just looking for an exit strategy”). But such a link reeks of more hyperbolic liberal guilt if for no other reason than that it again transforms Muthana into a metaphor from the complicated individual he really is.

For all Operation Filmmaker’s attempts to highlight Muthana’s flaws (notice how Davenport surveys a wall in his room full of Maxim-esque softcore ads and centerfolds), it’s the moments when Davenport reveals her and other Westerners’ ulterior motivations in regard to his plight that speak volumes about the strained efforts of those in control of media to vainly use their influence for “good.” When an artistic director at the New York School of Film & Television watches Muthana’s stilted acting tryout, she practically stumbles over herself reaching for vague praise so as to avoid doling out an “insensitive” rejection. And when Davenport talks to her former co-director (who wisely quit the project because of the problems he foresaw) about the culminating crisis with Muthana she revealingly states, “I’m not willing to accept that the answer is don’t ever try to help anyone or don’t make a film.” In Operation Filmmaker, the two projects go hand-in-hand, but never gel.

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