Liev Schreiber, prepping for his directorial debut “Everything is Illuminated” in 2004, was captivated by a segment of MTV’s “True Life: I’m Living in Iraq” featuring Muthana Mohmed, a charismatic Iraqi film student shown searching for books on cinema in the Baghdad bazaars, his school and filmmaking dreams destroyed by the war. Schreiber invited Mohmed to come to Prague and serve as a PA on the film, and director Nina Davenport to document this act of liberal good will (and good publicity) that soon goes fascinatingly awry, the journey (and convenient metaphor for the U.S./Iraq relationship) becoming the documentary “Operation Filmmaker,” which opens in New York today to general acclaim.
“One of the grace notes of this smartly put together documentary, which fluidly weaves talking-head interviews with on-the-ground footage, is that it implicates everyone, including those Americans who thought that with their money and their good intentions they could perform a miracle,” writes Manohla Dargis at the New York Times. Michael Koresky at indieWIRE notes the filmmaker’s growing complicity in the situation:
At the outset just a prompting offscreen voice, Davenport finally is one of “Operation”‘s principal characters, in the end as unwitting a player as her protagonist, raising all sorts of ethical questions about the relationship between filmmaker and subject that she never could have predicted. The convolutions people go through to rationalize their own agendas form the heart of “Operation Filmmaker,” which yearns for closure but finds in its seemingly innocuous central act of reaching out a fussy knot of unresolvable contemporary predicaments.
“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,” shrugs Slant‘s Bill Weber, while David Edelstein at New York adds “you can feel [Davenport’s] idealism crumble as Muthana rages at her and hits her up for money. In the end, she all but throws up the camera and wails, “Help!”–and damned if that’s not, under the circumstances, the clarion call of a real American artist-hero.” “Davenport and Schreiber clearly envisioned Mohmed’s journey as a neat, tidy little human-interest story,” suggest the Onion AV Club‘s Nathan Rabin. “Instead they got something infinitely messier and more vital: a human story and one that says a great deal about the world we live in, filmmaking and the limitations of good intentions.”
J. Hoberman at the Village Voice is a bit more mixed, describing the film as “as much virus as video documentary,” and concluding that “Aggravating as her experience may have been, the filmmaker has managed to have her cake and eat it, too.”
[Photo: “Operation Filmmaker,” Icarus Films, 2007]