(Guest post by Richard Bol.)
When American actor/director Liev Schreiber saw an MTV programme featuring Iraqi film student Muthana Mohmed fruitlessly searching chaotic post-invasion Baghdad for movie materials, Schreiber decided to give this deserving fellow a trip to Eastern Europe to work as an assistant on the set of his film Everything Is Illuminated.
However, as Nina Davenport’s insightful fly-on-the-wall documentary Operation Filmmaker shows, Muthana wasn’t the grateful recipient of American benevolence that his benefactors imagined.
Instead, through his laziness, arrogance and willingness to forego a chance to advance his skills by editing together a blooper reel for Everything Is Illuminated’s wrap party (but still claiming the credit when chatting up a girl) in favour of getting hammered, Muthana reveals himself to be the Iraqi version of a FTVMS poser who wants the fame of Peter Jackson but has neither the love of film or dedication to make it anywhere. By following around an unsympathetic aspiring superstar director in the process of blowing his big chance, Operation Filmmaker is similar to Overnight, the tale of Boondock Saints writer-director Troy Duffy’s meteoric rise to Hollywood fame at the peak of Tarantino hysteria, and his equally quick fall from movie industry favour. Yet while Overnight didn’t go much further than showcasing Duffy’s seemingly endless paranoid, abusive arseholery, Operation Filmmaker allows the viewer to question all of the players in Muthana’s saga – especially as to the motivations of those eager to show how sympathetic and caring they are to his plight.
Schreiber’s act of generosity was well-meaning, but he doesn’t appear to have considered what would happen when Muthana’s work visa expired and he faced the grim possibility of returning home. Similarly, when Muthana – after burning his bridges with the Everything Is Illuminated team – manages to score another film assistant job making Doom, we meet an American bit-part actor who weeps while describing Muthana as a truly beautiful person. Also keen to demonstrate their empathy are the admissions panel at a USA film school to whom Muthana applies (unsuccessfully, as he can’t afford the fees), who get tearful when viewing his terrible acting audition tape. The greatest public display of Western charity, however, comes from Doom star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who makes sure he’s being filmed when presenting Muthana with the $25,000 he needs to attend a London film school.
By the time Muthana ends up in London, he’s more of a tool than ever, and his antagonistic relationship with Davenport breaks down. Yet Muthana does emerge as more complex than an unbearable jerk. Since Davenport sent cameras to Muthana’s friends still in Iraq (possibly because Muthana refuses to discuss his Iraqi experiences with her, although he’s more than willing to do so for other potential benefactors), we see grim footage of friends telling Muthana of the violence, repression and deprivation they endure and begging him not to return. Davenport’s motives also emerge as complicated – is she genuinely concerned for their plight, or does she just want to get footage of Iraqi trauma to provide context for her documentary?
While Davenport’s project began as an attempt to document an act of cross-cultural understanding and kindness, Operation Filmmaker ends up posing numerous questions as to the power relations between gift-giver and recipient, the thin line between generosity and exploitation and the limits of good intentions. Indeed, in its portrayal of naïve Westerners and a resentful Iraqi, Davenport’s documentary ends up mirroring the situation in post-Saddam Iraq. Much like the architects of the American-led occupation, Schreiber and Co. expected Muthana to fit neatly into their world view, only to find themselves searching for an exit strategy when things turned bad.