Review: Operation Filmmaker
Director: Nina Davenport (Parallel Lines)
Writers: Nina Davenport
Producers: Nina Davenport, David Schisgall
Starring: Muthana Mohmed, Liev Schreiber, Peter Saraf
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 106 min
While channel surfing one night, actor/director Liev Schreiber came across an MTV special (oxymoron, I know) about life in Iraq. Part of the segment profiled a young Iraqi man that was discussing about how his dream was to become a film maker one day, but in Baghdad, this is obviously very difficult if not impossible with the current (then 2004) unstable climate over there. His film school had been used by Saddam Hussein to house soldiers and was therefore targeted by the allied military and destroyed. Schreiber got it in his craw to snatch the kid (Muthana Mohmed) out of the area and bring him to Prague to help with the motion picture he was about to direct, Everything is Illuminated; starring Elijah Wood.
When he arrived, film maker Nina Davenport began filming this “experiment” to see what would come of it. Within just a couple of days, she realized she had something really special going and decided to keep filming and make a documentary on the entire experience. Both her and Muthana got a lot more than they bargained for over the course of the next few months. What started as a noble charity, became a bogged down mess of sticky relationships, lies and manipulation.
Muthana is one of the more interesting and complex characters of any that I’ve seen thus far on the year. Because of his background and beliefs, gelling with others on set was simple culture shock at best, nearly coming to blows at worst. When he first arrives in the airport and is greeted by Liev and producers, it is all smiles and hugs and big thank you’s. But once on set, Muthana learns the real life of starting at the bottom when it comes to film making. While big shoots are taking place, he is learning how to make coffee and mix nuts just how the director and producer like them. Being under the impression he was going to be helping direct the film, this leaves a bad taste in his mouth and his frustration grows each day.
Working with a largely Jewish crew and studio front (hence fairly liberal), the crew is shocked, appalled and in disbelief when Muthana praises the war in Iraq and claims to “love George Bush.” Politics can be a sticky thing amongst friends and co-workers and the subject of the Iraq war and GW bring that stickiness to new heights and it shows immediately. The crew must learn to accept this fact and move on with other things.
Things get even stickier when finally Muthana is given a real job. His task is to create a gag reel for use at the wrap party. Instead of working on the project, he decides to go to a party and when asked about how much work he got done, the words awkward and embarrassing don’t really quantify the tension in the room. Here is where the chemistry (if there ever was any) between Muthana and his crew mates starts to turn really sour.
With his visa soon expiring, Muthana must figure out a way to stay in country and finish the shoot. he’s also been given an opportunity to work on the film adaptation of the video-game Doom starring “The Rock.” To secure the legal right to stay in the country, he’s forced to ask those that he knows for help. While disgusted that he hasn’t started working on this sooner, they reluctantly agree to help him out. Getting to work on Doom is a huge step-up and working with “The Rock” ends up being more than just a job; it becomes a charity opportunity.
Muthana seems like a generally likable person with big dreams and large amounts of charisma. But he doesn’t seem to want to work to make those dreams come true and his pride prevents him from asking for help and being straight with others when he needs it. Instead, he “pussy-foots” his way around dilemmas in hopes that others will feel sorry for him and help him out on their own; a very “fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants” kind of guy. He claims to be strong, smart and independent, but with every step of the way through this experience, he seems more and more like a whiny child.
As the film continues, director (of the documentary) and camerawoman, Nina Davenport, begins to become more and more involved with Muthana’s struggle. Instead of remaining impartial and just filming, as the documentary wears on she begins to increasingly ask more questions of Muthana and assert her own opinion more and more. Eventually, she too is taken advantage of by the young film student and it leads to more than one melt-down in which Muthana threatens legal action, holds some of her film for ransom and even grabs her and the camera in an attempt to get her away from him. It’s really quite the crescendo of near madness.
From country to country, Muthana continues his travels and his exploits with no money and increasingly shorter visa limits, feeding off anyone who will agree to help him. After a year in a London film school, he plans to go to New York City and continue his studies. But with no money, no friends or family in New York, it seems impossible. Admissions love his application and physical “look” and want him immediately. “I don’t give a shit about money,” Muthana says at one point. “I don’t need anyone. I don’t give a shit.” Meanwhile he’s walking around London with five pounds in his pocket planning on somehow surviving in The Big Apple.
A fascinating experiment that goes awry pretty quickly, Operation Filmmaker is the story of a young man with dreams and hopes, but no work ethic or sense of responsibility that escalates beyond what anyone thought possible when the venture started. It’s hard to fault Muthana for this as his country is completely war torn and he and his family receive death threats (or so he claims) if he returns to Iraq after working on an American film by a Jewish company. People naturally feel guilty about this and want to help, despite Muthana’s seemingly unwillingness to help himself. Politics in the film are not openly debated, but they are there as an alarming but fascinating backdrop and a reference point for the months that Muthana Mohmed is taken under the wing of Hollywood. Definitely a documentary worthy of your time.
Click “play” to see some clips: