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Movie Review

A culture clash writ small, messy, and real

From left: Kouross Esmaeli, Muthana Mohmed, and Nina Davenport. From left: Kouross Esmaeli, Muthana Mohmed, and Nina Davenport.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 20, 2008

"Operation Filmmaker," the sad, funny, obsessively watchable/avert-your-eyes documentary opening today, doesn't just illustrate the truth of the saying "No good deed goes unpunished." It spreads the punishment around, from the executive suites of Hollywood to the mean streets of Baghdad. Everyone here comes out smelling bad - that's why the film's so good.

In 2004, a year after the US invasion of Iraq, actor Liev Schreiber saw an MTV segment about a Baghdad film student named Muthana Mohmed, whose studies had literally been bombed out from under him. Schreiber was heading to the Czech Republic to make his film-directing debut, an adaptation of the novel "Everything Is Illuminated" starring Elijah Wood, and he convinced his producer Peter Saraf to hire Mohmed as an intern for the duration of the shoot. In addition, an independent documentary team headed by filmmaker Nina Davenport followed the young Iraqi around, hoping for a story to emerge.

One did, but not the one Davenport expected. Mohmed turns out to be sweet, articulate, and remarkably unmotivated. Expecting to land in A-list heaven, he's frustrated to find himself in production assistant hell, driving vans and mixing vegan snacks for the producer. ("What is this 'tofu'?" he wonders.) The gulf between the Americans' expectations of the intern (be properly thankful, show initiative, claw your way up) and Mohmed's own (weren't you going to show me how to be a filmmaker?) widens until everyone has achieved the proper state of passive-aggressive hostility. It doesn't help that Muthana really likes President Bush, a sin akin to child molestation to the Los Angelenos.

Then "Operation Filmmaker" gets interesting. The "Illuminated" shoot having wrapped and his Czech visa about to expire, Muthana desperately casts about for a way to keep from returning to a collapsing Iraq. This extends to shaking down his new Hollywood friends - including Davenport and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson - for favors and hard cash. For their part, they're torn between guilt and a nagging sense they're being hustled.

So which is it? Is Muthana a shameless opportunist or is he being exploited by naive, entitled Americans? Davenport is a smart enough filmmaker to realize that both readings (and neither) are true, and she's honest enough to implicate herself in the devil's bargain. As Mohmed moves to London for film school, hoping to hopscotch from there to New York, he and the director argue with increasing bitterness over what he needs and what she owes.

At a certain point, her subject has had enough - why shouldn't he be compensated for living his struggles in front of her camera? - and Muthana lets Davenport have it with both barrels: "You don't give a [expletive] about Iraqis. You just want to show how good you are as an American." The line expertly skewers the noble middle-brow charity of well-fed Westerners while leaving just enough guilt for Davenport to subsidize Mohmed another few months.

In this we can read an entire cultural disconnect from people whose lives we've turned inside out. "Operation Filmmaker" draws mordant parallels between what Davenport is doing to Mohmed and what America is doing to Iraq, and as specious (or as dumb) as that sounds, it holds most of its water. Good intentions, cultural blindness, and a failure to think through consequences underlines both our micro and macro interventions. In retrospect, as producer Saraf says, "What did we think was going to happen?" and it's unclear whether he means hiring Muthana or invading Iraq.

By the end of "Operation Filmmaker," the education of Muthana Mohmed is complete. The kid is living in London with film student roommates, shooting a friend's project and hoping for his own. He still seems young and dangerously dreamy, yet most of his illusions have been burned away. "I will make it, because I'm real," Muthana insists. It's as if that reality is something he had to snatch back from America.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

Operation Filmmaker

Directed by: Nina Davenport

Starring: Muthana Mohmed, Liev Schreiber, Peter Saraf, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 92 minutes

Unrated (language, war violence)

In English and Arabic, with subtitles

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