Review by Simon Augustine
Posted on 22 July 2008
Source Icarus Films 35mm print
It is not often that a documentary filmmaker unknowingly indicts herself in a documentary partially meant to indict herself. How does this turn of events occur? Well, stay with me, because it’s a little complicated. It all starts when well-known actor Liev Schreiber, who is directing his first film (an adaptation of the bestseller Everything Is Illuminated), sees a twenty-five year old Iraqi named Muthana Mohmed interviewed on MTV. Although he is surrounded by a country engulfed in turmoil and violence, Muthana manages to talk with enthusiasm and charm about his love of American cinema. Schrieber is moved, and feels pangs of “guilt” about his wealth of opportunity here in the U.S. as compared with the young guy’s situation. So he creates a remedy: he personally invites Muthana to work on the set of his new film. Documentarian Nina Davenport, who captured the trajectory of her own love life in Always A Bridesmaid, is hired to follow Muthana’s Hollywood adventures and record them for posterity. A job she initially believes to be relatively innocuous and routine eventually turns into a startling misadventure, and becomes Operation Filmmaker, which eventually took years and much handwringing to complete.
For what on the surface appears to be an altruistic and innovative gesture quickly descends into a startling comedy of errors, as the wide-eyed and somewhat arrogant Iraqi increasingly finds himself disillusioned by his role on the set in Prague. Expecting to be shown the ins and outs of American filmmaking, Muthana is instead placed on the absolute bottom rung of the ladder, and asked to do a variety of menial and mundane tasks: getting coffee for the higher-ups, retrieving papers for the higher-ups, arranging trail mix in a cup for the higher-ups. Finding condescension rather than inspiration, Muthana begins to rebel. When he is proudly bestowed with the gift of editing the “gag reel” that will appear for the crew and cast at the wrap party, Muthana blows off his assignment by going out to experience the nightlife. Then things really begin to get ugly. The crew members in charge of him are befuddled by their apprentice’s lack of gratitude and work ethic. How can this poor unfortunate, snatched from the jaws of tragedy, not appreciate his good fortune at the hands of liberal, empathetic Hollywood? And how could he be such an entitled asshole? As Muthana becomes alienated from the sensibility of the Americans, he begins to make a lonely figure—a stranger in a strange land (with sometimes only the camera and Davenport as a companion). Assumptions on both sides of the fence disrupt the experiment, and soon Muthana turns to crass manipulation to get what he needs and wants. Out of this unexpected turn of events, Davenport discovers a clever parallel between Muthana’s story and our government’s misadventures in Iraq: i.e. what begins as well-intentioned aid from the U.S. towards the citizenry of Iraq winds up being naively misguided; a morass of cultural confusion, miscommunication, mutual exploitation, and resentment (on behalf of both parties) inevitably leads to chaos. Once this thesis emerges, Davenport latches onto it as the driving force behind the film’s narrative. And so a familiar postmodern media loop is accomplished: a film about an Iraqi working on a film becomes a metaphor for the war he has left behind (because he loves film).
However, I found myself wondering: paradoxically, is this parallel too “convenient”? Much of the publicity and criticism surrounding Operation Filmmaker has centered on Muthana’s generally rotten personality, and the havoc he creates. In fact, this goes beyond the frame: in a recent interview on Salon.com Davenport described how once the film premiered she endured continuing threats and harassment from him. To be honest, though, within the film’s context, I actually found Muthana to be a lot more sympathetic than most viewers did. Sure, he is presumptuous, self-absorbed and evasive. And he does willfully take advantage of those around him. But he is also sometimes quite funny—as, after the realization first dawns on him that he is being enlisted as a glorified go-fer, he bemusedly looks into the camera, and says “what the fuck?!” We cannot but help identify with him here, bewildered by the pretension and sycophantism of a movie set. But, more importantly, as Iraq begins to go steeply downhill, we also see him watching bombings and burning cars on TV, and there is a sense of pain and panic lurking behind the bravado. This is the crucial difference that makes the exploitation of Muthana by the Americans so much more unpalatable then what he inflicts on them: when all is said and done, the kid is just trying to survive, and all his manipulation and lying becomes a lot more forgivable when we realize it serves this purpose. Actually, it is closer to desperation than anything else. A viable connection to his home country is disintegrating, and Muthana needs to build a bridge to some kind of future. This is punctuated by interview footage of Muthana’s friends, those remaining stranded in Iraq, who appear haggard and frightened. For Muthana, everything – his entire reality – is at stake, while for the Hollywood players surrounding him, merely what he represents to them is in play.
For Schreiber, along with his producers and assistants, this means that Muthana assume the part of the thankful and dutiful foreigner, rescued from the flaws of his own country (sound familiar?). For director Davenport, this means a willing subject who will take part in her vision, and most importantly, as things proceed, one who will fulfill her thesis about the microcosm she is witnessing. When Muthana doesn’t fulfill either set of preconceptions, everyone around him becomes exasperated. Often, humor results: witness the priceless look on the face of producer Peter Saraf when Muthana declares he is a fan of George Bush; we can almost see the mixture of liberal assumptions and myopic elitism clashing in Saraf’s brain. Slavishly and unrepentantly kissing-ass is considered a core virtue on Schreiber’s movie set, and Muthana’s complete lack of interest in exercising it leaves his sponsors confused, and then aghast. Try to hold back the douche chills watching star Elijah Wood’s smug and subtly demeaning conversation with Muthana at the wrap party. The Hollywood players come across exactly how you fear they might—vaguely patronizing, overly privileged, out of touch, and more alive to the surfaces of things than any underlying truth. That is, more concerned with the image as opposed to what the image stands for.
In the case of Davenport, this attitude toward Muthana is more disturbing. She begins to exhibit the worst side of a documentarian: pushy, opportunistic, and blinded to the humanity of her subject in favor of getting good footage in the camera. As Muthana stays in Prague after the film wraps, doing anything he can to not return to Iraq, we watch him hustling to work on a new film, extending visas, soliciting donations, and convincing Dwayne Johnson to bankroll film school for him in London. As Davenport is increasingly sucked into her own narrative – lending money to Muthana to keep him going, arguing against his behavior – her subject begins to sense that it is not him, but the perception of his character in the film, with which the director is really occupied. Eventually he resists being “cast” as the villain, and actually tries to get Davenport to stop filming him. Then he wants money in exchange for continuing to be the star of a movie that will go on to reap financial rewards (and it is hard to argue with his point, since, given the convoluted and symbiotic nature of his relationship to the director, he is more like an actor than a conventional documentary subject). At one point, he sarcastically accuses the filmmaker: “next time will you get an Afghanistani?” The ethical implications of manipulating the reality being captured in a documentary start to become uncomfortable for the viewer. This is brought acutely to light when Davenport’s friend David, a screenwriter who initially helped arrange the Prague assignment, questions her like a hostile witness about the ethical problems inherent in her move in front of the camera. Appropriately, he makes sure he gets Davenport’s reaction to her compromised position “on film.”
The ironic thing is that amidst all of the postmodern machinations Davenport is managing, she misses the larger emotional reality that emerges almost in spite of her direction. This does not mean she is not (self) conscious of the dialectic at work between image and reality. She is, and even brilliantly plays it up in a recurring bit in which the actual carnage in Iraq is juxtaposed with the special effects blood-and-guts on the movie set. But this doesn’t stop her from shaping the dialectic for her own ends. More interesting than the somewhat contrived (in conception and action) “parallel” between Davenport’s relationship to Muthana and that of the U.S. to Iraq, is the complex relationship between the human drama of Muthana’s situation, which requires more perceptual digging, and the image of him foisted on him by Davenport, Schrieber, et. al. At first he must symbolize the Iraqi in need of political sympathy, then he must symbolize an ungrateful Iraqi illuminating the nature of the war. In the Information Age, confusion, deliberate or not, between image and reality becomes one of the most essential ethical dilemmas we can encounter. Ethically, it manifests as the difference between sympathy and empathy, respectively: one serves the ego of the perceiver or giver, while the latter properly serves the object of perception, the person actually in need of help and of being understood. And the moral terrors involved in confusing image and reality are convincingly embodied by our invasion of Iraq. In their Svengali-like guidance of the Bush administration, the neoconservatives’ use of “sympathy” rather than “empathy” – that is, their aggressive confusion of what Iraq represents to them with the people who actually live and breathe there – has lead to tragedy. Accordingly, Muthana knows that neither Davenport nor the others ever really “see” him, and part of his bad attitude stems from this knowledge.
And isn’t this ultimately the job of a documentary: to see its subject as clearly as possible? Perhaps not. Maybe Operation Filmmaker is a kind of gonzo version of the documentary which proposes to reveal subtleties that can be provoked in no other way but by making the perceiver – the filmmaker – into a subject too, and then drawing out further the relationship between the conventional subject and the narrator (now made flesh). Despite, and because of, its ethical and perceptual problems, Davenport’s work is successful in eliciting thought about the nature of image and reality—and thus by extension, about the nature of documentaries and the folly of the Iraq war itself. In one of the last scenes, Muthana declares – as if in protest of his own self-serving actions and the whole project of which he is now the center – “I’m real!” The film is particularly apt at providing such telling moments. Unfortunately, there is one moment left in store after this that I didn’t see coming, and which changed my entire feeling about the film. As the film nears an end, one is almost willing to forgive Davenport’s boundary-crossing because of the fascinating and illustrative drama that has just been witnessed. And then, unexpectedly, she shows her hand, and betrays herself and the audience by capping everything off with a title card that is artistically fatal. She gives herself the final word, effectively asserting – for good – the dubious perceptual control over Muthana that an astute audience will have questioned all along. (In retrospect, it comes almost as a refutation of Muthana’s declaration about being “real.”) Summing things up, she tells us that after the experience of the film she is “just looking for an exit strategy.” With such a too-clever-for-its-own-good, glib parting thought, Davenport demonstrates why ultimately we cannot trust her as a documentarian in Operation Filmmaker: she cannot resist reducing Muthana, and by extension Iraqis, to an easy symbol, one which ignores the complexity of human nature—which is what led us into war in the first place.