December 17, 2007

Operation Filmmaker.

David D'Arcy issues a call for distribution.

Operation Filmmaker We're back at that time of year when talk runs to the best and worst of the past dozen months, and to the growing number of films that won't qualify for the races because they never made it to theaters. It's a long list, and near the top of mine, simply because I can't determine which film is most aggrieved for being undistributed, is Operation Filmmaker by Nina Davenport. It's a comic documentary allegory of the US adventure in Iraq, seen through the misadventures of a would-be Iraqi filmmaker who learns that American charity can be the black hole that nourishes the right con-man.

The Toronto International Film Festival showed Operation Filmmaker, as did Woodstock, Denver, Sheffield and others, all to their credit. (Apologies to those whom I left out.) Where are the distributors on this one? Huddling somewhere, wondering why almost nobody went to theaters to see documentaries this past year. (We can also lament unseen distributed docs like Manda Bala, Crazy Love, Zoo and Terror's Advocate.)

The protagonist is Muthana Mohmed, a young guy with what looks like a grin of innocence, who turns up on camera in an MTV report from Baghdad that lists the destruction of his school's screening room among the many unforeseen consequences of the US invasion. One of the couch potatoes all over the cabled world who watched the MTV coverage was Liev Schreiber, the actor and director who was moved by Muthana's testimony and decided to help him by hiring him on to the crew of Everything Is Illuminated, which Schreiber filmed in the Czech Republic in 2004. I guess Schreiber was just doing his part, as they say, post-9/11. Nina Davenport was initially hired to document the endearing Muthana's transformational experience - a sort of "making of... homo Iraqus novus cinematicus."

Like just about everything in movies, war and nation-building, nothing goes according to plan once the smiling Muthana is greeted in Prague with hugs and tears. He's cocky, and he's lazy, and he's not allergic to the camera. Muthana screws up every task he's given - sort of like the Iraqi government - and gradually wears out much of the good will that brought him to the Czech Republic in the first place. Things start going downhill when he tells the liberal producer of the film that he "loves George Bush." Yet he worms cash out of people, and somehow gets his Czech visa extended when work on Everythihng Is Illuminated comes to an end. His pitch to credulous film types is that he can't possibly return home because he'll be a target for retribution in Iraq for having worked with Americans on the film - all the worse because the subject matter and the company were "Jewish." Muthana lands on his feet miraculously with work on another movie, Doom, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, which features mass machine-gunnings and piles of bodies daubed with blood. (Think of the film factories of Prague as another low-budget US deployment. It looks like some version of the military, but it's just a movie.)

Muthana befriends The Rock and even finds a girlfriend in Prague with whom he can't communicate, as he borrows money right and left, eventually getting The Rock's blessing to enter a film school in London that he can't afford.

Operation Filmmaker

It's not all air-kisses and handouts, though. Intercut is footage from Baghdad of carnage and dead-end musings on the devastation by friends of Muthana to whom Nina Davenport has sent cameras. Also in the story are arguments between Davenport and Muthana when he asks her for more money, while refusing to get a job. After threatening repeatedly to quit the film - presumably a maneuver to get more money out of her - he does just that.

We end with Muthana down and out in London, operating the camera on a small film, but the remarkable thing is how far he's managed to travel on guile, a nice smile, and the kindness of credulous strangers. In one scene, the administrators of the New York Film Academy consider him for a scholarship. They watch Muthana's audition tape with the worst acting this side of Tony Danza, and all agree that there's a film career of infinite possibilities in store for him. Bear in mind that Muthana is not necessarily a bad actor; it's just that, like Ronald Reagan, the only role he can play convincingly is himself.

The parallels are unnervingly comic. Good intentions, bad intelligence, a charity case who won't work at a plumb job, endless requests for money, and excuses at every turn from the recipient of largesse and the foolish good-hearted people who are providing his life-support. Just before the credits roll, Davenport says that she's looking for an "exit strategy." You have to wish her luck.

Why are we not seeing this film? Part of it may be due to the poor performance of films about Iraq this year, although the larger and more troubling fact is that audiences aren't going to see any documentary films, with a few exceptions. Another problem is that Muthana is now in London (we have to wonder how he's supporting himself there), and he is now reportedly warning (or is the proper word threatening?) that screening the film anywhere will once again put his family in Iraq at risk - and that Davenport faces a potential lawsuit, since his friends in Baghdad did not sign releases for the footage she's got of them. Davenport says she has the signed releases. Let's hope that this dispute won't deter distributors.

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Posted by dwhudson at December 17, 2007 2:41 AM


May I also recommend Davenport's PARALLEL LINES? Finally available on Greencine. Terrific movie, also very sadly underseen.

Posted by: tb at December 17, 2007 10:56 AM