(No longer in theaters)
Nina Davenport, Sheldon Mirowitz
Jun 4, 2008
Nina Davenport’s stupendous documentary Operation Filmmaker, the story of a grand American liberal-humanitarian gesture gone kerflooey, is very alive —and morally disorienting to the point of inducing dementia. Liev Schreiber, preparing to direct his first feature (in the Czech Republic), Everything Is Illuminated, watches an MTV special on “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in which, amid the devastation, Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old Shiite with an infectious smile, says he dreams of being a filmmaker. What an attractive young man! Why not fly him to Prague and give him a job as a production assistant and invite Nina Davenport to chronicle the inspiring story of an Iraqi Muslim joining hands across the cultural divide with a bunch of American Jews? Altruistic and high concept!
At first, our sympathies go out to Muthana: How could he be expected to know that if you’re lucky enough to get a p.a. job, you should, as producer Christine Vachon put it in a book I co-wrote with her, “Throw yourself into it body and soul … and impress the people who matter (like me) with your incredible initiative”? Cut the guy some slack—his country’s under siege! No one told him one of his jobs would be shaking a snack cup of nuts so they’d be evenly distributed. Peter Saraf, the producer who supervises Muthana, comes off like a Hollywood dickhead who one minute boasts about his liberalism and the next expects a young guy who has never before been out of his benighted country to apply himself like Gunga Din and kiss people’s asses in gratitude. Then, very gradually, we begin to think Saraf isn’t so insensitive. Maybe he’s even a good guy in a hopeless situation. Maybe Muthana—no no no, mustn’t think that. No. Okay, maybe. Maybe Muthana is a lazy and not very bright or talented liar given to exploiting his country’s tragedy. No! Stop! Maybe it’s Davenport who’s exploiting him. No, that’s not right. Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we’re terrible, terrible American pigs to presume to pass judgment.
The only certain response is “Oy.” Operation Filmmaker doesn’t quite shake out as a microcosm of the American-Iraq relationship, although Davenport cheekily toys with the conceit. But the movie is endlessly resonant. Davenport sends Muthana’s friends in Iraq a camera and their footage is chilling. (They seem like the real filmmakers.) Meanwhile, Muthana watches the carnage in his country on TV and—extending his visa on the grounds that he thinks he’d be killed in Iraq for collaborating with American Jews—goes to work on a zombie picture in which The Rock plays the big American hero with major artillery. More and more, Davenport herself becomes a character, and you can feel her idealism crumble as Muthana rages at her and hits her up for money. In the end, she all but throws up the camera and wails, “Help!”—and damned if that’s not, under the circumstances, the clarion call of a real American artist-hero.