“What the fuck?” laughs bewildered Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old Iraqi film student plucked by fate from the rubble of Baghdad in 2004, after learning that one of his chief tasks on the set of an American-made movie is to prepare vegan snacks for a producer. Operation Filmmaker charts the unscripted acceleration of Muthana’s feel-good “arc”—after being featured on an MTV segment when his arts college was bombed by the U.S., he was flown to Prague by director Liev Schreiber to intern on Everything Is Illuminated—into a rollercoaster of liberal guilt, enigmatic motives and immigration crises. The early revelation: the recipient of this heart-tugging opportunity is a diffident, coddled, occasionally assholish (“Not my job!”) mama’s boy who can’t cope in his new dream world. Nina Davenport’s documentary utilizes an on-the-other-hand style of fairness in empathizing with the Shia refugee’s plight; initially proclaiming “I love George Bush” in the wake of Saddam’s fall (much to the thinly veiled horror of Schreiber’s producer Peter Saraf), Muthana glassily watches the mounting televised carnage from Iraq and reads emails pleading with him not to return, even as he neglects editing the Illuminated blooper reel or securing visa extensions in favor of all-night partying and courting a Czech extra with his guitar ballads and easily switched-on charm.
Agitated about his destiny once the Hollywood crew has departed without procuring a stateside job for him (and often hitting up the shadowing but increasingly on-screen Davenport for loans), Muthana lodges rent-free with an apartment full of bohos and drifters, then gains a few more months of legal Czech residency while latching on as a runner for the sci-fi thriller Doom. Adjusting his occupational expectations to the level of carrying coffee, he now resignedly grumbles, “It’s the American way.” But either by osmosis or out of a catlike survival instinct, Muthana has absorbed Saraf’s complaint that he needs to “make himself indispensable” on a movie set: In dire need of funds to attend a London film school, who better to endear oneself to than rich and PR-conscious action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?
Given Davenport’s 18-month chronicle of events on three continents (she incorporates footage shot by friends of Muthana’s marooned in Baghdad; one, rearranging his wall photos of Chaplin to stave off cabin fever, piercingly laments “I hate Islam, I hate the fucking religions”), a few narrative gaps aren’t closed. Saraf testily observes to Muthana that he seemed bent on acting, not directing, from the moment of his arrival, but aside from the émigré’s canny life-performance as he hunts uncertainly for a permanent landing place in America or the international film industry, we don’t see the evidence until the last reel. Instead of ending with Muthana the performer, in a monologue that’s a marvel of cracking wise and self-analysis, Davenport gets the last word in a title card, a bit over-weeningly drawing a recurring parallel between the prolonged Iraq occupation and the conundrum found by the young man’s would-be benefactors: a Chosen One who selects his own path and tells his tentatively committed patrons to screw off. Operation Filmmaker occasionally verges on damning its subject—one of the most gripping characters seen this year on film—for being a cagey, arrogant, single-minded narcissist, but hey, that’s showbiz.