Operation Filmmaker is a disquieting, and blackly humorous portrayal, screening at the World Cinema Showcase, of good intentions and its far-reaching consequences. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks to director Nina Davenport about the Iraq War, liberal guilt, and the personal nightmare into which she was sucked.

Nina Davenport with Muthana Mohmed

ONE OF THE more fascinating documentaries out of this year’s World Cinema Showcase is Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker. In it, she follows one Muthana Mohmed, who appeared out from the rubble of war-time Baghdad to express his dream of becoming a filmmaker on MTV in the US. Actor Liev Schreiber, who was about to start filming his directorial debut Everything is Illuminated, saw the piece on MTV and wanted to bring him over to the Czech Republic where shooting was going to take place. He wanted to give Mohmed an opportunity to make it as a filmmaker. Producer David Schisgall, who made the MTV show was contacted by Schrieber, and was asked to make a documentary about bringing Mohmed over. Davenport had been friends with Schisgall since college, and was asked to do this documentary. However, what had initially appeared to be a feel-good, liberal back-patting project ended up being something much more unhinged – mostly thanks to the fact that Mohmed wasn’t prepared to act the huddled victim.

Davenport was initially told that “it’s probably not going to be interesting, but you’ll be getting paid to spend a week in Prague during the summer.” It wasn’t going to be a big project, “I guess my intention was mostly to make some money, to go to Prague and to hob-knob with Liev Schrieber and Elijah Wood.” However, this week-long project ended up sucking Davenport into something that was much more gruelling and emotionally draining than she first thought. She knew something was up on set after she “spent some time on the set. I saw this incredible conflict playing out between Muthana and his benefactors.” Her initial impressions of him were positive. “I would say I was pretty charmed by him. He’s got a cute accent, a funny way of speaking English, he’s boyish and cute, he’s funny. It was really exciting to interact with someone from Iraq. We shared a love of film, and I was predisposed to think very highly of him because I felt so bad about what my country was doing to his country.” She was opposed to the Iraq War from the start, something which may have affected the way she acted subsequently. “I never thought it was a good idea, though I did hope, as a consolation prize, at least it’d be good for Iraqis to get rid of Saddam.”

The film shows Mohmed becoming disillusioned by the menial nature of his tasks on set – delivering coffee, mixing nuts – that he soon starts expressing his frustration to Davenport. When Mohmed is given the task of editing the gag reel for the wrap-party, he ends up partying. It is apparent that the filmmakers ended up underestimating how difficult it would be for Mohmed to fit in. “I think it’s pretty clear that they underestimated that. They just wanted to do this really nice thing. It was really nice and very generous, but they didn’t think much past that. It was an act of passion with not a lot of forethought. On the other hand, had Muthana been a super hard-working, eager grateful guy, it’d have been a different story. Anyone coming out of a war-zone would be a bit of a handful. But I think he was a particularly big handful.”

But just as the Americans have found it more and more difficult to extricate themselves from the Iraqi quagmire, Davenport found herself more and more stuck in the Mohmed project. “My view of him changed in many different ways. It was much more complicated, and nuanced, and conflicted. He definitely was very manipulative and also very savvy. He understood all the forces at work. He understood how guilty liberal American Jews felt about the war and he knew how to play into it.” Davenport is keen in the film to show the parallels between Bush and his view of liberating the Iraqis, and those of the filmmakers in trying to ‘liberate’ Mohmed. “The problem with the war and the problem with what Liev did, though they’re different things – one is an act of generosity and one is an act of war – is that you start this thing rolling, and you expect it to be over. The consequences are so-far reaching. There isn’t an exit strategy. There are still people dealing with Muthana’s problems and his issues and helping him.” However, she’s not trying to be critical of Schrieber, because she feels he was acting with really good intentions. “I respect him for that, people who pass judgment on him, don’t ask themselves, ‘what have I done?’. At least he tried. And Muthana did benefit, certainly.

“It sort of became my own private Iraq war. There are endless reservoirs of guilt and regret on the subject of the Iraq war if you’re a conscientious citizen, and you know what’s going on. I took me a very long time to get off the point that even though there’s this huge horrible situation. That doesn’t mean I have to do more for this person. He pushed me to my ultimate limit.”

However, Davenport gets drawn in so much, that she becomes part of the film itself. She felt she had to appear in the film, as she was just as implicated as anyone. “I had to be in the film or it wouldn’t have been honest, or nearly as interesting.” She found this out in the editing room, having possessed the foresight to film scenes involving her in addition to the scenes without her. She’s appeared in a number of her documentaries in the past, but here she finds herself losing money, constantly facing demands, being abused, lied about, having equipment stolen – all by the person they were trying to ‘save’. “Throughout, there was a long protracted moral dilemma that I went through – ‘what’s the right way to act in this situation when he’s asking me for x, y or z, given what’s going on in Iraq. Given that I’m making a film out of his life, and he’s getting nothing out it.’ Maybe he did deserve money when he asked for it, maybe he did need help with his visa.”

“It sort of became my own private Iraq war. There are endless reservoirs of guilt and regret on the subject of the Iraq war if you’re a conscientious citizen, and you know what’s going on. I took me a very long time to get off the point that even though there’s this huge horrible situation. That doesn’t mean I have to do more for this person. He pushed me to my ultimate limit.” However, she does get accused in the film of having an ulterior motive, and you can tell that Mohmed knows that Davenport will be able to use this film to her own career advantage. I ask if she feels guilty about this, especially given that the film is good enough to guarantee a wider audience. “No. The good side of how abusive he was to me, and how much he did do to me, relative to his complete hostility, and spreading lies – I actually have no guilt at all. I probably would have felt guilty if he hadn’t been such a nightmare to me.” In hindsight though, Davenport admits that “if I were to be totally honest, had I known how difficult this was going to be, I would not have got involved. I wish the Bush administration would make the same admission, but of course, they won’t. It was so emotionally trying and confusing, being immersed in a painful issue in a personal way.”

However despite all this, Davenport does make sure that Mohmed is shown as a brutally human person, which is probably the film’s great success – so much so that audiences the world over have responded to him in wildly different ways. “Some people like him, some people can’t stand him, some people say ‘god you’re so patient’, other people have hostility towards me, that I’m an ‘arrogant American.’” People have asked her “‘doesn’t he deserve at least a visa and a few thousand dollars’? It’s a confusing question, and audiences have different responses. ‘Why did you give him money’, ‘why didn’t you give him any more money?’” I ask if she’s managed to find an exit strategy from Mohmed. “My exit strategy was that I put him on spam blocker. But the thing is that it wasn’t entirely foolproof. David is still talking to him, and David is calling me saying ‘Muthana wants this and wants that’.” For those wondering what he’s up to now, Davenport tells me he’s waiting tables in London, having been granted a five year refugee visa in Britain. He hasn’t been particularly happy with the film either. “He started a one-man campaign to bring it down. Nothing has come of it, nor will it. I think it wasn’t his own reaction to the film.” Instead, it was more when he found blogs in reaction to the film, which weren’t particularly complimentary to him that provoked his anger towards the film.”

This film will provoke heated discussions – and people could justifiably think “what were the filmmakers expecting to happen?” or “why did she put up with this for so long”. Either way (or both), Operation Filmmaking is a compelling watch, deeply sad and blackly comic in its narrative developments. It’s also a neat parallel to the misguided motives of Bush, and an understanding as to why many people in Iraq perhaps didn’t immediately submit to the best intentions of the West-knows-best plans.