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When Subjects Revolt: 'Operation Filmmaker' Takes on a Documentarian's Dilemma

By Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

Nina Davenport’s deeply personal, fully actualized films reflect both her obsessions and our collective need to connect with others. From her solo sojourn in India, with the eloquent Hello Photo, where she turns the idea of a travelogue on its head; to her search for love, intimacy and commitment in Always a Bridesmaid; to Parallel Lines, another solo journey, this time across a post 9/11 America, as she sorts through a nation’s grief, Davenport’s talent lies in her ability to reach an authentic place, while tackling large issues on a human scale. She reveals, often with humor and compassion, the complexities that lie beneath the surface. 

Her most recent film, Operation Filmmaker, ruminates on our mis-engagement in Iraq, via a compelling character study. Davenport once again prevents us from making easy assumptions. As we watch her dive into the deep end with her subject, it’s impossible not to see the interdependency of our actions, with all its messiness, malignancies and misunderstandings, from both the micro and macro perspectives.

Shortly after the start of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” actor/director Liev Schrieber saw an MTV segment about Muthana Mohmed, a young Iraqi film student whose school had been destroyed. In a burst of naive idealism, Schrieber decided to invite Muthana to intern on his film Everything is Illuminated, then in production in the Czech Republic. He hired Davenport to document Muthana as he adjusted to life on a Hollywood set. What was supposed to be a one-to-two-week project for pay ended up appropriating a year-and-a-half out of Nina Davenport’s life.

 IDA: This was supposed to be a short, paid assignment. How did it evolve into a feature?

Nina Davenport: What happened was, I started looking at the footage and realizing that Muthana was actually a really compelling character. I started off thinking this was not interesting, but by the end of five days, I realized that there was this conflict unfolding between Muthana and his American benefactors and that it was a perfect metaphor for what was going on in Iraq and what had led us into Iraq in the first place. I was so upset by the whole thing. I wanted to make a film about Iraq, but I didn’t want to make something I knew a lot of other people were going to be making, and I was afraid to go there. So this was a perfect way to address something I was already obsessed with.

 IDA: As a documentarian, did you feel you had crossed over into a direction that you really did not want to go? Had you found an “exit strategy,” would you have been able to bow out earlier? 

 ND: It wasn’t really as a filmmaker. At a certain point I just realized the fact that this guy [Muthana] is turning to me for help; it’s unavoidably part of the film. He’s asking me for help. He’s not taking no for an answer. He’s not letting me follow him around as an objective observer, so I had to include that in the film. But he was so hard to deal with, and it put me in so many difficult situations, that I definitely fantasized about an exit strategy for a long, long time. But I didn’t think that was an option, either morally or in terms of the film.

IDA: It has to be a struggle when working so closely with a subject.

ND: In a way, it’s a great film about documentary filmmaking because this issue comes up all the time. Films are so often about people who are powerless and have no resources, who are suffering, made by people who have plenty of resources—often tons of resources—and yet this sort of dynamic is almost never acknowledged.

Muthana was so aggressive about pursuing his own interests, and because that fact fit so well with what was going on between America and Iraq at the time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make it part of the subject of the film.

IDA: In an interview for Parallel Lines, you spoke about the need to believe that people are basically good, or else you wouldn’t have gone off alone with some of your subjects. Did you have this same sense about Muthana? How did that change?

ND: I completely gave him the benefit of the doubt. I felt that because I was filming him I had to be on his side, just in fairness. It was just a very long, low, grueling process of realizing that he wasn’t a very good person, and maybe he was even a pretty bad person.  It became really unpleasant and really upsetting and just protracted, seemingly endless. It was so morally confusing for me, and it took up hours of my time and so much energy thinking about it and what’s the right thing to do and how to handle the situation. He was such a master manipulator and such a pain in the ass, that there would be some sort of crisis at least once a week, or sometimes daily. I took all of those things really seriously and thought about them long and hard.

IDA: I was interested in Kouross Esmaeli’s (who shot the earliest portions of the film) response to Muthana and the film. He had the ability to leave and shut off.

ND: He’s from Iran and he came here when he was 13. He also spent time with Muthana in Baghdad, filming the MTV piece, so he has a completely different perspective. He decided that Muthana was manipulative and dishonest much earlier than I did. He felt more in a position to judge because he understood that part of the world more. 

IDA: Do you have any contact with Muthana? What’s happened to him since? 

ND: I don’t talk to him anymore. Honestly, I just couldn’t stand it and I had to cut him off. David [Schissgal] talks to him and [said] he got a five-year extension on his visa in London for asylum.  

IDA: Do feel like you’re still recovering from the film, or are you done?

ND: It’s been a while, but he really drained so much of my energy; he was always accusing me of doing these horrible things that I never did and telling tons of people that I’d done such and such or lied...and that he was going to be killed if the film showed at Rotterdam [where the film won the 2007 KNF Dutch Film Critics Award]. He just wreaked so much havoc. Part of what happened is that my mom died in the middle of this...and I realized that I’m done with the guilt and done with this guy who put me in a bad mood for the last year of my mother’s life, and I’m just closing the door. I haven’t talked to him since. By the time I did that, I had no guilt whatsoever because I’d been through so much with him. But a less naive person wouldn’t have had to go that far to get to that point. Liberal guilt and naivety definitely played a huge role, and massive guilt about Iraq and what we’ve done [to the Iraqis] and 11 years of sanctions that no one even mentions, that were equally destructive to them.

IDA: What are you working on now?

ND: I’m actually making the sequel to Always a Bridesmaid, which is about, ‘Should I have a baby on my own?’ I still haven’t found Mr. Right, and I’m 41. It’s also about my mom’s death and about my dad being a bachelor and about my life, ten years after Always a Bridesmaid. I plan to make at least one other film. I want to make an autobiographical film from the perspective of an old lady, so maybe every 10 or 15 years I’ll make one of these films about middle or upper-middle class women in the 20th and 21st century. So maybe together they can be taken seriously for the five or six people who watch them!

Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is writer and marketing/communications professional, who spent many years in the trenches as a publicist for documentary and independent feature films. She resides in Los Angeles with her family.