A fable for our reality-TV reality, Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker is as much virus as video documentary. This essentially comic tale maps a contagion of mutual exploitation that seems to have burnished the careers of everyone involved.
Four years ago, MTV’s True Life telecast a piece on young Iraqis that devoted a segment to Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old Baghdad film student obsessed with the idea of going Hollywood. Among those who saw the episode was Liev Schreiber, then preparing to make his suitably serious directorial debut with an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Operating in full humanist mode, Schreiber decided to give Muthana a break and hired him to work on his set. The actor also reasoned that this generous act should not go unrecorded: He contacted an MTV producer, who recommended Davenport—a Harvard classmate—to document Muthana’s education.
Everything is illuminated, indeed. Muthana arrives on location in the Czech Republic; it’s his first time outside Iraq, and his first time in the self-contained, self-absorbed world of a movie set. An intern—and yet a star, or at least a celebrity— he is put to work as an assistant gofer. Thus humiliated—and displaying an excellent command of colloquial English— Muthana has no qualms complaining to Davenport: “What the fuck?! The most important scene was rolling on the set while I was mixing the snacks!!”
The question that courses throughout Operation Filmmaker is: Whose needs trump whose? Schreiber imported Muthana to feel good about himself, while his production requires the kid to prepare vegan treats. Contracted to produce a documentary, Davenport is no less needy than her subject. She wants Muthana to just be himself, naïvely expressing his gratitude (“I love George Bush—he changed my life”) and prejudices (describing Everything Is Illuminated, which deals in part with the Holocaust, as “a movie defending the Jewish theory”). Meanwhile, someone on the project has sent cameras to Muthana’s Baghdad friends. Their video letters urge him not to even think of venturing back to Iraq. Muthana appears stunned—somehow, the job he’s been given editing the wrap-party gag reel seems . . . petty.
Understandably, Muthana wants to get a U.S. visa, but since he doesn’t know how, the Everything Is Illuminated producers (anxious to rid themselves of this ungrateful pest) conclude that he’s a slacker and lacks initiative. Worse: Is he really in danger, or is he just manipulating them? One producer actually tells Muthana to return to Baghdad, write a screenplay, and then call him in Hollywood. Later, the same producer will introduce the high-concept notion—embraced by Davenport as her ruling metaphor—that helping Muthana has turned out to be the boondoggle equivalent of invading Iraq.
Davenport frequently shows herself giving her subject advice—suggesting, among other things, that he be more honest and “real” on camera. Muthana does take direction, albeit in his own way. Cast as a hustler, he necessarily becomes one—managing to extend his Czech visa and get a gig on the set of the sci-fi action flick Doom. Davenport (who continued to film Muthana in Prague) drolly cuts from footage of Iraqi carnage to a field of zombie corpses on the Doom set. Confusion breeds confusion. Doom‘s star—Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—thinks Muthana might be a hero, like himself, and in the movie’s supreme gesture (self-interested or not?), makes it possible for the young exile to pursue his dream at some dubious professional academy in London: “You’re going to film school, buddy!”
It’s a chaotic situation and an appropriately chaotic film, filled with Davenport’s anxious asides to the camera. But no one is more invested in Muthana than she, and he knows it. (“What’s your next project—a guy from Afghanistan?” he sneers.) Davenport keeps giving Muthana money; he accuses her of making a documentary designed to demonstrate American goodness and Iraqi weakness, then demands an additional $10,000 or he’ll quit her project. (He even holds footage for ransom.) It’s at this point in their mutual guilt-tripping that Davenport presents the televised image of George W. Bush promising to “stay the course.”
Whereas she had originally hoped for a happy ending, Davenport tells us, she’s now looking for an exit strategy. From her perspective, Operation Filmmaker is both. Aggravating as her experience may have been, the filmmaker has managed to have her cake and eat it, too. As a teacher at the New York Film Academy tells her, straight-faced, after viewing a video monologue submitted by the desperate Muthana: “He’s very, very castable in today’s market.” Operation Filmmaker proves it.