It's pretty clear that Nina Davenport didn't set out to make the documentary she ended up with. Operation Filmmaker was to be the triumphant tale of a 25-year-old Iraqi film student plucked from the war zone by benevolent artists and given a chance to fulfill his dreams of becoming a devoted student of cinema. Instead, West Bloomfield native Nina Davenport was pulled into an emotional roller-coaster ride of liberal guilt, American arrogance and personal manipulation as her camera-ready subject reveals himself to be a manipulative and selfish jerk.
Inspired by an appearance on an MTV documentary about the bombing of Baghdad's only film school, actor Liev Schreiber decides to "rescue" aspiring filmmaker Muthana Mohmad by making him a production assistant on his film Everything Is Illuminated. Bringing him to the Czech Republic, Schreiber's hope was to give the young Iraqi the once-in-a-lifetime experience of working on an American production. Unfortunately, what starts as the portrait of a fresh-faced hopeful quickly turns into a cautionary tale of cross-cultural disconnection. It turns out that Muthana is lazy, self-centered and dishonest. He misses deadlines, reneges on promises, mismanages his money, and repeatedly depends on others to bail him out. All the while he reminds those around him of the peril he faces should he return home. After all, he is an Iraqi working for Americans. Even worse, Jewish Americans.
He's hardly the only villain, however; Davenport also shows how the Hollywood producers and production staff see themselves as generous and unappreciated do-gooders, tone-deaf to the fact they haven't thought through the process of integrating Muthana's cultural upbringing with their own, very Western, expectations.
If it all sounds like a small-scale metaphor for America's postwar misadventures in Iraq, it's not coincidental. In a moment of self-awareness, producer Peter Saraf says of George Bush's folly, "What the fuck did you expect?" then follows with, "Am I there myself yet? Not quite."
It's a great moment but illustrates the weak link in Davenport's engrossing and, at times, infuriating documentary. Not only are the connections driven home a little more forcefully than necessary, like the War In Iraq, Operation Filmmaker has no ending. Instead, it falls into a cycle of repetition until Davenport and her subject finally melt down beyond repair and the story, like much of life, goes unfinished. No conclusion is offered. No "where-are-they-now" postscript is given.
What makes Operation Filmmaker so fascinating is watching the unsavory Muthana struggle to reconcile that he's simultaneously a lowly Hollywood gopher and he's the star in his own movie. Talk about mixed messages. Inevitably, Davenport is pulled into the drama while the young Iraqi emotionally and financially extorts money from her, threatening to pull the plug any time he doesn't get what he wants. This personal involvement generates some very revealing moments but could have used a bit more context. Davenport remains mostly anonymous in a story that is as much about her struggles to finish what she started as Muthana's integration into Western culture.
What hits home hardest, however, is Muthana's uncanny ability to fall upward. He has more last-minute reversals of fortune than Indiana Jones. From surprise visa extensions to sponsorship from a Hollywood action star to admission to a London film academy, you'd think he'd revel in his good luck. Instead, he remains an angry and dissatisfied young man with limited talent and unreasonable expectations. As each new opportunity for success opens up to him, he undermines his own chances to advance in the art form he supposedly loves. Instead, what he begins to perfect is his ability to manipulate people with his personal narrative. Which, come to think of it, probably makes him uniquely qualified to become a Hollywood producer.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 18, and at 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Sept. 19-20.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].