Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Opening Tomorrow: Operation Filmmaker

Watching MTV can be a bad influence. Just ask actor Liev Schreiber, who got more than he bargained for when he flew Muthana Mohmed, a young Iraqi film student, to Prague to intern on his film Everything is Illuminated after seeing him on an MTV program. The rocky relationship between Mohmed and the Hollywood crew and his subsequent efforts to avoid returning to Baghdad are chronicled in Nina Davenport’s documentary, Operation Filmmaker , opening in New York tomorrow.

From the first day of production, it becomes clear that Mohmed and his Tinsel Town patrons just are not coming from the same place. When a condescending assistant to producer Peter Saraf explains her boss’s vegan diet: “no milk because cows make milk, no cheese, no eggs, because, you know, chicken,” the young Iraqi can barely hold in his “wtf.” Even greater are their differences of opinion on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Saraf is stunned to hear Mohmed say: “I love George Bush, he changed my life.” Mohmed asks the producer if he is disappointed to which he responds, "no," in one of the least convincing screen performances in film history.

There seem to be a number of reasons Mohmed has difficulty fulfilling his duties on the set, including cultural stereotypes about what constitutes men’s work. At an immature twenty-five, he has never really worked or taken care of himself, so he often acts like an incoming college freshman, blowing off work for parties. He is also understandably distracted by the barrage of reports from his home generated by a hostile media intent on producing defeat in Iraq.

To be fair though, Schreiber and Saraf probably should have been more specific about the less than glamorous nature of interning Hollywood-style. Saraf’s description of a good assistant is frankly cringe-inducing: “learn what kind of coffee the director likes and have it waiting for him and bringing it to him in the middle of meetings really discretely.” Reluctant to return home, Mohmed is able to stay in Prague to work on Doom, starring The Rock. Mohmed seems to become more of Saraf’s kind of assistant, forging better relations with the cast and crew of the meathead movie than he had on Schreiber’s prestige picture.

Most of the celebrities in Filmmaker, including Schreiber and Elijah Wood, appear to be shallow, self-centered, and dumb. Ironically, the Rock’s publicist will probably be happiest with the finished film. Getting sucked in to Mohmed’s drama, director Davenport becomes a reluctant character in her own film, as the expat starts to lean on her for financial and legal assistance. Clearly, he becomes extremely manipulative in the course of the film (at least as shot and cut by Davenport), but her “exit strategy” metaphor becomes tiresome.

However, Filmmaker is fascinating look at the dark side of documentary filmmaking. Like Saraf, it is pretty obvious Davenport is not a supporter of Operation Iraqi Freedom, frequently relying on CBS News for their “Iraq as quagmire” coverage, with good news, like the historic election, given short shrift. She does get credit though for including some scenes that do not conform to her world view and for not protecting the image of liberal Hollywood.

Ultimately, there are aspects of the film partisans on either side of the political spectrum will find uncomfortable. Given the ambiguity of Mohmed’s character and the circumstances of the film, it is unlikely Filmmaker will change anyone’s perception of events in Iraq. Often darkly comic, Filmmaker is really more of a cautionary tale for aspiring documentary filmmakers. This is not the film Davenport set out to make, but it is what she ended up with and it is engaging to watch. It opens in New York at the IFC Film Center tomorrow and on the Island at Cinema Arts Centre on the 10th. (Photos courtesy of First Run/Icarus Films)