One of my closest friends has an older sister who’s been a drug and alcohol abuser for most of her life. Every time she falls off the wagon, her parents pick her up—so she doesn’t have to pick herself up. They can’t make too many demands on her, they reason. She’s weak after all! They’re afraid not to supply her with money, food, and shelter. They fear the guilt that would consume their lives if she died as a result of their kicking her out on the street. The irony, of course, is that their enabling is, in all likelihood, slowly killing her. Guilt is a narcissistic, dangerous thing.
I thought of my friend’s situation as I watched Nina Davenport’s documentary Operation Filmmaker, which parallels the myopic, gung-ho strategy of “conservative” hawks (that led to the invasion of Iraq) with the myopic, liberal, do-gooder ethos (that led to Liev Schreiber plucking Iraqi film student Muthana Mohmed from Baghdad and dropping him onto the Prague-based film set of his directorial debut Everything Is Illuminated). After seeing Muthana briefly profiled in a segment on MTV, Schreiber immediately offered to hire him as an intern and thought a documentary on the young filmmaker’s experience would prove interesting as well. Hence Davenport and her co-director Kouross Esmaeli (who shot Muthana for MTV, and also got Davenport the gig) are welcomed aboard a soon to be sinking ship.
Muthana’s tale is pretty straightforward. Davenport follows her subject around with a camera, indulging in a lot of handheld shots of Muthana on the set and in the quaint city, sprinkling self-conscious close-ups of his eyes, arms and hands here and there. She alternates footage of this sheltered, middle class kid who’d never been outside of Iraq (never even cooked for himself, nor done his own laundry!) with news footage of Bush ramblings and suicide bombings, of Muthana partying in Prague when he should be working (editing the all-important gag reel for the wrap party) with drunken parties in Iraq, U.S. tanks, and a destroyed cinema (images courtesy of Muthana’s film student friends who Davenport sent cameras to).
As the production winds down and Muthana’s visa is set to expire, it’s clear he’s overstayed his welcome. “I’ve had worse days than this, but at least the worse are more interesting,” Muthana says, fed up with making copies and mixing snacks, learning the ins and outs of which producer likes which table and who’s vegan. When Davenport interviews producer Peter Saraf (who, oddly enough, resembles Alvin Chipmunk) about Muthana’s problems adjusting, he suggests, “If I were him, I would have gotten here and made myself invaluable to the director.” And how could he have done so? “Learn what kind of coffee the director likes.” Everything Is Illuminated star Elijah Wood chalks it up to “he’s here to work, not to be a celebrity,” i.e., Davenport’s trailing camera is boosting Muthana’s ego too high to be an intern—insinuating that perhaps he’s lazy, not overqualified.
Other than committing the Hollywood sin of not being skilled in kissing ass or hustling, Muthana gets under Saraf’s skin for his inability to “be straight” with the lefty producer (and it probably didn’t help that Muthana told an Entertainment Weekly reporter, “I love George Bush!”). He’s a culturally disoriented, confused and charismatic child who never takes the initiative, always waiting around for others to tell him what to do, to offer him a helping hand. He’s scared to show signs of weakness (explaining that Arabian people have pride, honor—“and you’ll never understand that” he pointedly tells the camera), to ask directly for what he needs (that is, assuming he even knows what he needs). One of the most disturbing scenes is when Muthana approaches Saraf to (disingenuously) thank him and disclose that he’s decided to return to Iraq to make a movie and be with his family (a convenient choice since no one wants to help him renew his visa anyway). “You don’t need any money?” Saraf taunts, trying to coax him into being honest. “No,” Muthana answers confidently, but Saraf sadistically continues, “You’re sure?” The game goes on until Saraf breaks him, gets Muthana to admit that he could use some cash, upon which Saraf just walks away triumphantly, telling him to come see him when he figures out what it is he needs.
And need really is what it comes down to. Saraf and Schreiber needed to feel they were doing something for the Iraqi people, which is why Muthana was brought to Prague in an act borne of the same blind presumption as the invasion itself, which Saraf describes as, “Well, what did you think was gonna happen, you idiot?” then allows, “And I should probably be thinking that about myself, but I’m not there yet.” He’d invited Muthana to the set because he assumed he was passionate about filmmaking. Then he met him and thought he wanted to be an actor, which was “disappointing.” (Guess it never occurred to Saraf that MTV might prefer to spotlight a photogenic charmer like Muthana, who cites The Sixth Sense as an influence, rather than the filmmaking friend back in Iraq who rearranges pictures of his heroes Chaplin and Godard on his wall to keep busy while trapped inside during bombings.) Saraf had “high hopes” when Muthana told him he was returning to his country to make a film, but after Muthana suddenly breaks the news that he’s staying in Prague on an extended visa until starting his PA gig on Doom (a job he got by taking the initiative to ask a producer on that film), Saraf is once again dismayed. In other words, Saraf, who had an image of Muthana not based on any reality, just a seven-minute clip on MTV, believed his own bullshit—and was let down. (Not unlike the key strategists, naturally, in the wrongheaded Iraq war.)
But this is where things truly get interesting, when Davenport decides to stay on even though her gig shooting Muthana on the set of Schreiber’s flick has ended. She doesn’t have an ending to her film yet, she reasons, meaning she doesn’t have a happy one—i.e., she can’t face the consequences of letting go. Cutting from news footage of mangled Iraqi bodies to the zombie bloodshed on the set of Doom, Davenport now sees a more confident Muthana through her lens, no longer expressing sentiments like “I’m trying to be like you”—American—“but I can’t.” “How has your attitude changed about bringing coffee and tea compared to the last movie?” Davenport asks since he’s still basically doing menial labor on Doom. “Well, this is the American way,” Muthana shrugs. With luck on his side he just barely garners more visa extensions, woos a Czech girlfriend who doesn’t speak any of his languages, and even gets into the London Film Academy without having any means to pay for tuition—then again, Doom star the Rock should be able to afford it, so he writes him a letter.
Davenport interviews the magnificently sculpted Dwayne Johnson about the young Iraqi whose sincerity she’s starting to doubt—along with her own. (Muthana is growing weary of the camera, yet Davenport can’t seem to stop shooting!) The Rock prefaces his comments with “What I was told,” then proceeds into an account of how Muthana had been pulled from the rubble of his film school after having grown up under severe repression. The Rock is touched that through all this hardship Muthana still hangs onto his dreams. (Of course the Rock has gotten as far as he has and still managed to maintain his genial personality through a mix of savvy and humility. He, more than anyone, understands being used for ulterior motives. In his autobiography, The Rock Says…, he describes being treated like a slab of meat at the NFL recruitment camps, a hunk of muscle to be weighed, ogled and groped. I remember this tidbit because it made me think, “Where do I sign up for this NFL recruiter job?”) Of course, the Rock saves the day by coming through with the film school tuition—but at what cost?
Once in London, Muthana still has no money for expenses, which Davenport finally gives to him, with reservations. He’s already threatened to walk out on her once, called her bluff when she claimed that she wouldn’t help him out indefinitely, had to move on to other projects. “What’s the next film? A guy from Afghanistan?” he snorted. Davenport can’t understand why he’s constantly calling in favors, why he’s too proud to knock on doors for a job. In fact, she needed only to have looked in the mirror—with friends like Davenport who needs employment? The deeper question is why doesn’t Davenport set limits and conditions on Muthana? Why is everyone waiting for him to propose solutions instead of forcing him to find his own answers? How hard would it have been to draw up a contract stating, “I help you with this visa and in six months time you must have achieved this goal or I wipe my hands of you,” and then honor it? Why all this unconditional money? And why is everyone expecting a reckless kid to behave like a mature adult?
But Davenport’s blind spots only grow as her relationship with Muthana becomes darker and more entrenched. Having juxtaposed the presumption of going to war hubristically with the presumption of altruism without planning, Davenport neglects to connect the third leg of what morphs into a vicious triangle—her own presumption in drawing parallels between the first two. It makes for a nice story, the missteps of right-wingers mirroring that of the lefties, but this allusion is far too incomplete. Davenport and her fellow liberals could wash their hands of Muthana without any blood being shed (Muthana’s protests that he conceivably could be killed upon returning to Iraq for having worked with “Jewish Americans” ring more sound bite than truth). Indeed, their cowardice in the face of guilt—having to live with their giving him the boot—is the problem. This is all about them and their own little bubble. (Kouross, the only hero of the film, brave enough to walk away as co-director, says as much, disgusted that Muthana’s need knows no limits, and also that he’s been forced to rely on people with ulterior motives since leaving Iraq. He eventually agrees to meet with Davenport again after her final blowup with Muthana—on the condition that he’s able to film her. Kouross instinctively knows that her inability to move on with her life is the real story.)
In contrast, the continuing war in Iraq is not a result of mere guilt. We stay embroiled in that mess because lives truly are on the line. We can’t leave without people—our own included—dying. That Davenport wants to draw parallels to her own situation (the very last line of the film is “I had hoped for a happy ending—now I’m just looking for an exit strategy”) is the very definition of presumptuousness.
Thus all this probing for truth, of whether Muthana is con artist or lost soul or both, is disingenuous. What does it matter whether Saraf feels he’s being bullshitted, or whether the director of the School of Film & Television in NYC is moved to tears by Muthana’s “honesty,” when no one, not even Davenport, seems able to face him or herself squarely? Davenport makes the attempt, but falls woefully short. It’s easier for her to parallel her dilemma with the “big idea” of the war than to get personal and realize she’s serving as an enabler. She’s stuck in a pathologically dysfunctional relationship with Muthana, the only moment of truth coming when she refuses to dispense any more help—he’d upped the ante to ten grand, figuring with all the stars in her doc she’s bound to make a lot of money—so he physically throws her out the door. Muthana intuitively knows that he must get rid of her (though he agrees to let her film again six months later, explaining that they need time apart). She’s like a lover who won’t take no for an answer and her need for closure—to finish the film!—is every bit as creepy and disturbing as her subject’s ploys. Muthana may be always waiting for someone to save him but so is Davenport. She’s waiting for an exit strategy instead of creating her own by walking away.
On her last shoot with Muthana (who’s received a grant to cover expenses in London), his confidence remains as unwavering as ever, even though he remains a camera operator at school and has yet to be given a chance to direct his script about a palace dog who escapes and goes on one adventure after another, only to be captured when he takes a moment’s pause in front of a window and sees a TV screen showing suicide bombings. “I live for my dreams, not for my fears,” the Iraqi explains, justifying his pride and his indifference to money. He follows only his feelings. “I will make it—you know why?” he asks with wild-eyed cockiness. “Why?” Davenport responds. “Because I’m real.” The scary thing is that Muthana, like nearly everyone else in Operation Filmmaker, can’t see past his own reality.