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The Reeler Blog

Operation Enduring Filmmaker

Liev Schreiber and Muthan Mohmed in Nina Davenport's Operation Filmmaker (Photo: TIFF)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The Reeler hit Tuesday's New York premiere of Nina Davenport's acclaimed Operation Filmmaker, which Toronto Film Festival doc programmer Thom Powers loved so much he programmed it as the opening-night selection of his Stranger Than Fiction season at IFC Center. "Journalists sometimes ask me to pick my favorite documentary of ours each year; they say they know it's like picking between your children," Powers told his audience. "I don't have children, but if I did, I wouldn't have any problem picking a favorite. And this is my favorite."

High praise -- but worthy? Filmmaker follows Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old film student plucked from devastated Iraq by Liev Schreiber after a chance viewing of Mohmed's story one day on an MTV news profile. Schreiber summoned Mohmed and Davenport to Prague; the former to work on his directorial debut Everything is Illuminated, the later to film Mohmed's progress on the set. Progress is limited, however, as cultural, political and professional differences overtake the Americans' good intentions.

The metaphor works great early on -- Mohmed has never been away from home, cannot care for himself and scoffs at doing grunt work for Schreiber and his producer. But Mohmed's increasing dependence on those around him to pay his way and fast-track his visa renewals (somehow always just about to expire) endear him to Davenport. Soon she is a witting accomplice and, eventually, a donor to his cause.

Whatever that is. "I thought about abandoning it a lot, but I tend to be kind of unrelenting and perseverent -- maybe to a fault," Davenport said following the screening. "I don't know. I didn't ever seriously consider giving up on the film." But challenge as she might, in the end Davenport's drama wavers narrowly between Mohmed's directionless hustling and her own enabling; the theme of filmmaker/subject involvement succumbs to a rather strenuous codependency that resigned me to believe they were made for each other -- white guilt vs. white lies, each canceling the other out too inelegantly (and too early) for viewers to find either practitioner appealing.

"I tried to get as much of that in there as possible without it getting too off the path," Davenport said. "You don't want to lose track of the metaphor aspect, and you don't want to get too deeply psychological. It's a balancing act in the editing room. And he was constantly threatening to quit, and I thought: 'Oh my God, I don't have a film yet. My subject's quitting. It's a disaster.' But looking back on it, he was probably never actually going to quit, and that was one way he manipulated me. And I fell for it. Who knows?"

Don't everybody raise their hands at once. The thing is, I didn't necessarily dislike Operation Filmmaker; it's a bitterly honest depiction of the reality checks that accompany both astonishing luck and chasing one's dream (particularly in the film industry). I just didn't like its principals or their grotesque exploitation politics, particularly Davenport's, which are often as condescending as they are disingenuous. Frequent intertitles track the dissolution of noblesse oblige to more old-fashioned, grudging obligation.

"I didn't have the ability to just watch someone flounder, run out of money, become potentially homeless, get deported, etc. and just do nothing about it," Davenport said. "I just constitutionally couldn't do that, especially if that person is asking you for help. Then you add on the fact that you ravaged their country -- bombed the hell out of it, destroyed it, and then you're going to say, 'No, you can't have $200 to get by for the next month'? It's not easy."

It's evidently easier to reintroduce that quandary into one's life for nearly a year straight (on camera, natch), during which time Mohmed bounds from Prague to London, coaxes low five-figures for film school out of nice guy Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson on the set of the wrestler/actor's Doom, refuses to pursue a day job, attempts to extort Davenport and woos a patronizing New York casting director with a monologue that implodes -- like all things Muthana -- with half-assed incompetence. His primary motivation -- to avoid returning to decimated, deadly Baghdad -- isn't enough to compel him to any action beside scrambling for visa extention; Davenport's motivation is to follow him long enough to get her "happy ending."

And both seem to have succeeded in some regard: Mohmed was recently granted asylum in England, and Davenport scored at Toronto and again last night in New York. I just wish I had left looking forward to the continuation of each of their stories and not the ends of these respective chapters. Meanwhile, Stranger Than Fiction itself continues Oct. 2 with Jennifer Venditti's award-winning doc Billy the Kid; visit IFC Center's Web site for more information.

Posted at September 26, 2007 7:13 AM

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