This is one of those films that started out as one project and ended up a completely different one, because the filmmaker was able to continue working with their subject as the context around their work changed dramatically, which makes it all the more delicious. The project started when David Schisgall, a friend of Nina Davenport from college, directed a piece for MTV, “True Life: I’m Living in Iraq,” about young people living in Iraq. The piece focused mostly on American soldiers, however, it also featured seven minutes about Muthana Mohmed, a young Iraqi film student who was desperate to go to Hollywood. Actor and director Liev Schreiber saw the piece and was moved. He contacted Schisgall with the idea that he’d like to give Muthana an opportunity to come to work with him as an intern on “Everything is Illuminated,” a film Schreiber was going to direct in the Czech Republic.
Nina Davenport and Muthana Mohmed
Schisgall thought that Muthana’s experience might make for an interesting documentary, so he hired Davenport to make a film about Muthana working on the set of the film. This might have been an ordinary behind-the-scenes movie worthy of a DVD extra, however, when Davenport arrived on the set of “Everything is Illumniated” she quickly realized that this was not going to be a straightforward piece about an intern working on a Hollywood movie. Director Liev Schreiber and producer Peter Saraf had all sorts of expectations of what Muthana would accomplish on the set of “Everything is Illumniated,” which in the end were unrealistic; at the same time Muthana was not much different than the average middle-class kid unsure of what they want while being caught in a very unfamiliar situation. I don’t want to give too much away about the story itself, because I had a chance to see the film only knowing this setup, and I really enjoyed the journey not having any idea how the story was going to end. It’s really delightful to be able to see the movie that way, the film unfolds like life itself.
Nina Davenport, who was Ross McElwee’s student at Harvard, follows her teacher in the tradition of personal documentary filmmaking, and it really works in this film. What starts out as a straightforward behind-the-scenes piece, ends up becoming a personal film for Davenport. Her camera is at once gentle and probing, talking us along the ups and downs of the relationship between subject and filmmaker. In an era in which so many people are making films about themselves without an observer providing perspective, Operation: Filmmaker demonstrates once again why we benefit from seeing a dialog between subject and filmmaker. What makes the film so interesting is seeing a life honestly portrayed from the perspective of a third party who at the same time is closely involved in the life of the subject, and yet a different person who in the end can only observe, capturing both the things that make the subject attractive to us, as well as the things that we may not like about the subject. In the end, Muthana comes across as very human, and whatever we may not like about his character, we must recognize as characteristics about ourselves. As Anais Nin once wrote, “we don’t see people as they are, we see people as we are.” This film provides an eloquent visual manifestation of Nin’s oft quoted phrase.
This richly observed and well edited film goes beyond the events unfolding in front of the camera to tell a larger story about ourselves and relationships with others. Part of what makes this such an interesting film to watch is that Davenport reveals her struggle to make the film, during the Q&A session after the screening she said, “I felt I was in an abusive relationship, but it was not the man, it was the movie.” And while some will see this film as an allegory for our involvement in Iraq, in the end it’s a more universal story about expectations of others and what happens when those expectations don’t meet up with reality.
A list of upcoming screenings is available on the films website.