By Steve Erickson
Whatever the merits of the American documentaries about the Iraq War made so far, all of them are clearly made by filmmakers convinced they're on the side of the angels. Not so for Nina Davenport's Operation Filmmaker, the first American film whose director implicates herself in the condescension and cultural misunderstandings of the occupation. Her soul searching, spurred by a complex relationship with her subject, gives liberal guilt a good name.
The film's also compellingly structured, as it depicts Iraqi film student Muthana Mohmed using an internship on the Prague shoot of Liev Schreiber's Everything Is Illuminated as a chance to navigate his way out of Iraq permanently. Muthana's life goes through twists and turns that would please the most hardened screenwriter, but Davenport follows his story while highlighting her own increasing role, including lending him money at desperate times, in it.
How did Operation Filmmaker get started?
Basically, I knew David Schisgall from Harvard, where we both studied filmmaking. He'd seen this MTV show, True Life: I'm Living in Iraq. It mentioned Muthana. Kouross Esmaeli, who worked on my film, shot it. He sent a copy to David and asked about bringing this guy over and making a documentary about it. David then contacted Liev. It was just a work for hire at first. I didn't have great expectations for it, but I thought it was worth investigating. We had to raise a bit of money from a friend. I was getting paid to hang out in Prague but I thought the film would be called The Kindness of Liev Schreiber and probably not be very interesting. Then a conflict developed between Muthana and his benefactors. It was a clear parallel to what was happening in Iraq at the time.
Were you surprised when Muthana says he loves George Bush?
No. Because he's a Shiite, and they were oppressed under Saddam. A lot of them thought the war was going to be a great idea. Before it, he was living under a dictatorship where he could never get out. He's a pretty selfish person, so if it benefits him, it's good.
How did the ITVS (Independent Television Service) become involved in the production?
I had already raised money from the BBC, Finland, Ontario and SBS Australia. ITVS came in with the last and biggest amount.
Was there ever a point where you considered abandoning your film?
All the time. Muthana was so difficult to deal with. He was always threatening to quit. There was anxiety over that, but I didn't feel like I could easily get out. It took a long time to get enough material to make a really interesting film. I shot for about a year and a half.
At what point did it start to become apparent that this story was a larger metaphor for the Iraq War?
When I first started, I thought everything was hunky dory. Then I realized that Muthana resented the Americans and they resented him. I would pick up a paper and read about how the Iraqis didn't trust Americans. It was impossible not to notice that there was a parallel.
The film is very suspenseful. Was that a conscious choice, or just a product of the ups and downs of Muthana's life?
It was the life of a refugee whose visa status got changed every three months. But in the editing room, I tried to make it as suspenseful as possible.
Do you feel nervous sending such a personal film into the marketplace?
I've made something even more personal: Always a Bridesmaid, which aired on Cinemax in 2000. It was about my love life. I had to do a lot of publicity for it. Compared to that, Operation Filmmaker isn't so threatening to me.
Has Muthana seen it?
At first, he freaked out. He threatened to sue us. He called the BBC and the Rotterdam Film Festival, telling them they can't show it. It was a nightmare, but Rotterdam didn't take his threats very seriously. He's been trying to turn people against me, telling lies about me. It was exhausting.
Does he know it's opening in the US?
At first, I told him about every screening, but it just brought grief. I don't talk to him anymore, David handles it. So I don't know.
Do you worry that Americans are apathetic about Iraq War documentaries, even ones as unusual as yours?
Yes. I'm trying to keep my expectations low for that reason. I hope that good press will get people into the theaters, but I can't control it. The market is so bad for documentaries right now. It's terrible.
The film raises a lot of questions about American power and how Americans should relate to the rest of the world. Do you feel like you've come any closer to answering those questions?
Well, I felt the same way then as I do now. In some ways, the film is an illustration of the point that we shouldn't expect people from other cultures to behave like we would behave and want the same things we would want. Certainly, we shouldn't try to bomb anyone into submission.
Muthana only seems to get motivated when his situation becomes really desperate. Did you ever get much of a handle on why he acts that way?
I have some ideas. I find that trying to analyze someone who grew up under a dictatorship, in a foreign culture, by the same standards you would evaluate a New Yorker doesn't really work. You can't map the same paradigms onto that situation. Maybe his mother spoiled him, so he has an entitlement complex. Maybe he feels that the world owes him something because he lived under a dictatorship. Most of the time, I found his behavior unfathomable. I've never encountered anyone quite like him before. All I can really do is conjecture.
Was it hard to make a documentary about someone you obviously dislike?
I did like him at the beginning. I wanted the best for him and to steer him in the right direction. It was a very long, slow and painful process of disillusionment, which I think the film captures.
How does Operation Filmmaker connect with your other films, particularly Parallel Lines, which is about 9/11?
I think the connection is that they all have some sort of personal element. To a greater or lesser extent, I become a character within the films. I wasn't planning on doing that with Operation Filmmaker, but I got sucked in and realized, partly because of my previous experience, that it would be a lot more interesting if I became a part of it. Another filmmaker would never even have considered that, and it would have been a completely different film. I'm now working on a sequel to Always a Bridesmaid, which will be very personal again.
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