Exclusive: Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker

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What happens when you’re a documentary filmmaker hired to capture what could be a potentially important social story and things don’t go as planned and your subject matter’s journey refuses to go the way you expect it? Nina Davenport (Always a Bridesmaid, Parallel Lines) was hired to document Iraqi film student Muthana Mohmed’s entry into the world of Western filmmaking after he was spotted on MTV when his school in Baghdad was bombed and given a chance to work as an intern on the set of Liev Schreiber’s Everything is Illuminated as it filmed in Prague. The film’s producer Peter Saraf had problems with Mohmed’s attitude on set, but when the production ended, the young Iraqi remained in Prague and proceeded to manipulate anyone who’d listen into helping him with money and extending his stay in Europe, including Davenport herself.

The results are Operation Filmmaker, a movie which starts as an innocent cross-cultural document and ends as something different and quite unexpected. If you’re reading this, you may ask, “Well, what makes Nina Davenport’s movie or Muthana’s story something that might interest me?” In fact, anyone who’s interested in getting into the film business or documentary filmmaking might see Muthana’s story as a precautionary tale about knowing what you’re getting into before going in too deep. The film also includes some never seen behind the scenes from Schreiber’s directorial debut, as well as a few moments with The Rock and all-around nice guy Doug Jones from the action movie Doom.

ComingSoon.net went out to the DUMBO area of Brooklyn to have coffee with Davenport and talk about her movie and how things went horribly wrong, even as her problems turned the movie into something far more interesting than it might have been otherwise.

ComingSoon.net: How did you first get involved with this project?
Nina Davenport: Basically, it was a crazy story. David Schisgall–who I knew from college because we both studied film at Harvard, which has this great documentary film program–he’s known known me a long time and liked my films. He made this MTV piece about Iraq that Kouross Esmaeli shot, and it aired, and Liev Schreiber just randomly saw it, totally by chance, was captivated by Muthana, wanted to do something good because he felt bad about the war, and offered to help him. First, he called David and said, “What do you think about the idea of bringing this kid over and also the idea of making a film about it?” and David said, “I think it’s a great idea.” Then David shopped it around to lame places that didn’t go for it, probably because they thought it was going to be this boring feel-good documentary, and then Liev’s friend gave David a bit of money to start, so David hired me for just a day-rate shoot. I thought it was probably going to amount to nothing, that it would be fun and I’d make money, hanging out in Prague on a movie set. At first, I was just thinking that it was just this guy who talks really slowly, really pandering to the camera. I don’t understand what’s interesting about this, and then, as I realized there was actually a major conflict between him and the people on-set…

CS: You weren’t there from the very beginning?
Davenport: I wasn’t there from the very beginning… and so, he tried to make it seem everything was hunky-dory when we first got there, and we slowly realized, “Oh my God, there’s some major tension here.” We’d interviewed Peter (Saraf) about it and Liev, and then David and I had this realization that this was the perfect metaphor for the war. There was this drama playing about between Peter and Muthana in particular—Liev sort of stayed out of it at a certain point because he was too frazzled with directing his film. It was these two male egos coming to head.

CS: Was it just that he was a slacker or had a big ego or was it just culture shock from being out of Iraq in this foreign environment?
Davenport: I think it was just everything, all of the above. That’s often a question that people ask. They want me to say, “How much of it was this, how much of it was that?” and first of all, who knows? Second of all, the point really is more to just make you think about these issues rather than to come to some sort of a conclusion about Muthana. That’s not as interesting as elucidating this conflict that resonates on all these levels, given what’s gone on in the world recently and what we’ve done in Iraq.

CS: So Peter hadn’t talked to David about what was going on between them before you went over to Prague?
Davenport: David didn’t know Muthana before, because he didn’t do the shooting (in Iraq). Kouross would probably have said, “I don’t think this guy is necessarily so great,” but then what is he going to say, “Don’t step in and give this guy an opportunity?” You want to give someone the benefit of the doubt and hope, and Liev and Peter did not do any research about him at all. It was just seven minutes of MTV taken at face value, “Let’s go for it.”

CS: Who gave the cameras to Muthana’s friends in Iraq?
Davenport: That was a little bit later. Once I knew I was actually making a film, I did that, which was another whole ordeal. They were really hard to deal with, partly because it was during a phase when they didn’t trust Americans at all, so they were giving me a major runaround, and it’s a miracle that I got anything basically. It was really, really frustrating. It was hard work despite the fact that I didn’t do anything except just call and Email and didn’t go to Baghdad. Immediately, two of the cameras were “lost” or stolen or something and then I hired someone to be a go-between. It was this amazing woman I found through a journalist friend, Mona, and at one point, she was dropping off a camera and she narrowly missed a suicide bomb that killed 124 people. There was this sort of moral quandary, even from this far away. I’m paying her but is this worth it? Whereas his friends did not take any risks at all for the sake of the film. They just wanted to give me what they thought I wanted, get their money, and that was it. As it turns out, I think I really did want more of the kind of crap in your house thing that you never see on the news, the sort of mundane side of war that’s very depressing that eats away at your sense of self and the joy of life. You never see this; it’s all about the bombs and destruction. All of it is horrible and devastating.

CS: At what point did you realize that the movie was not going the way you wanted it to? You must have known where you were hoping for the movie to end?
Davenport: At first, I thought, “There’s no movie here.” We called it “The Kindness of Liev Schreiber.” Really, great, but who’s going to watch this? Then I realized there was a conflict developing and I thought, “Okay, there’s a movie here,” but just like Peter and Liev, I found myself wanting everything to end happily. So I have Act 1 where he’s a total f*ck-up and everyone’s hating him, then I’m hoping he’s going to redeem himself in Act 2, and he kind of does and he works harder. Then I was hoping that Act 3 is he finally makes a film and instead of it being all these Westerners projecting these fantasies onto him, he’s finally having the last word about himself, expressing himself artistically and making this great film. That’s what I was waiting and waiting and waiting for that to happen. He didn’t even get to co-direct the first film, he didn’t get to co-direct the second film, he didn’t get to co-direct the last film, then he was going to make this film “Mimi” that he describes, but he ended up getting into fights with producers and DPs. At a certain point, I was like, “This film may well never get made and I can’t keep waiting and I just have to face that this is not going to have a happy ending.” Then I realized, “Okay, fine, the war is still going on. It’s not going anywhere, so it’s actually more appropriate.” I struggled a lot with the issue of making a film about an Iraqi who wasn’t entirely likeable. Like Liev, Peter and any conscious-minded person, I felt really bad about this war and the last thing I want to do is contribute by ragging on an Iraqi, but it’s a documentary. I did encourage him to push him in the right direction with advice, we helped him. It didn’t make any difference.

CS: It must have been harder considering that you weren’t sure if you knew if you even had a film. A lot of documentary filmmakers I talk to have to wait and see what happens before they can start putting their film together and once they have enough footage, they can then figure out the plot. And yet you kept filming him even though you knew there were problems and he was giving you a hard time. At one point, you must have said, “Okay, I have enough…”
Davenport: I mean, I was sticking it out, waiting until he made a movie, and then that was going to be my very last shoot, and I never did that shoot because it never happened.

CS: Do you think there was some sort of ego thing going on with him by having the cameras focused on him at all times where he started changing?
Davenport: I mean, that raised the question, “Did the documentary affect him?” He’ll say that it ruined his life, however he doesn’t acknowledge all the times that we gave him money, helped him get visas, make keys… at key points, he would have been totally screwed if we didn’t help him. He sunk himself by being such a jerk, but he think it’s all my fault. Personally, I don’t think things would have been that different if I hadn’t made the film. He definitely had a lot of anxiety about the film, but he’s a very anxious person, and I think he would have fixated on something else.

CS: Why did David give up on the project? He was doing that show for MTV, so was he thinking that what you were doing would be a follow-up film to show on MTV also?
Davenport: No, he thought that if I do it, it’s going to be a feature film, but it’s probably not going to be very interesting. Half the time, he was directing “This American Life” and he thought he could be a piece on that, but I held out that it’s either a film or I’m not interested in doing it.

CS: Were you editing the movie as you were filming it?
Davenport: Yeah, because you have to. It’s so hard to raise money that I made a million trailers—trailers being footage cut together to raise money, so I sort of knew what I was getting as I was going along, and even as I was waiting for that very last shoot, I was editing. At a certain point, it was like we can’t wait anymore and we actually don’t need it anyway.

CS: What about getting Liev and The Rock to talk about Muthana on-camera, was that difficult? Obviously, Liev knew about the problems with Muthana, but The Rock probably knew nothing about what had happened on the previous film shoot.
Davenport: He didn’t know anything. The Rock just saw this guy who smiled on the set from Iraq, who wrote him this passionate, pleading letter, that’s it.

CS: Have any of them seen the movie yet?
Davenport: The Rock I think saw it, because I gave it to his publicist. I don’t know what he thought of it. Liev loved it and wrote me a nice Email. Peter only saw it when it wasn’t done, and he was just critiquing it as a film. He had an issue with the third act, which was not good then, but I don’t think he’s seen it since. He’s been really busy because he’s the producer of “Little Miss Sunshine.”

CS: Do you know if Liev and Peter still have regrets about what happened? They had it somewhat easy because they stopped dealing with Muthana once the film ended.
Davenport: I’m not quite close friends with them at all, so I don’t know. They were disappointed in what happened, that he turned out to be a jerk. They had real hopes. You can see it in the movie. Liev sent me that Email and maybe he would have done some publicity, but he’s been in New Zealand shooting another film.

CS: When you’re a documentary filmmaker, there’s always this point where you have to decide whether to break the fourth wall and put yourself in your own movie. At one point did you realize you were so involved that you couldn’t avoid it?
Davenport: At first, I didn’t think I was going to be in it at all, although I do have a history of making personal films, but I was not planning on that at all. As things were sort of winding down on “Everything is Illuminated,” he started asking us for advice, and so I was like, “I better film this, because it’s hard not to give him advice.” Kouross was giving him advice all along, because he was giving advice on how to get this whole thing to happen. I felt like Kouross should be in the film from the beginning probably. He didn’t want to be, but I felt like he needed to be, and then when the crew of “Everything is Illuminated” went home and left him by himself there, then he was not only asking for advice, but visa help, money and basically, it was really hard not to help him. He pretty much made it impossible because he was so difficult and manipulative, so I started filming all of those things, still not knowing if they’d make it in or not. Then by the end, when it was just clear that almost everything I was filming was just a power struggle between the two of us, me, an American woman in control of the film and an Iraqi man trying to get control of the film, I was like, “Alright, this has to be a part of the film, because this is just extending the metaphor, which is really what the film’s about, so I have to be in there.” But you never know how much until you’re actually in the editing room working it out.

CS: You originally went to Prague to follow Muthana while he worked on Liev’s movie, so theoretically, you could have stopped there once you realized that he wasn’t what you thought.
Davenport: I mean, maybe I could have done a one-hour movie out of it, but I just didn’t think it was that interesting.

CS: Towards the end, he stopped cooperating, but did you have enough footage to finish up the film once he stopped talking to you?
Davenport: I had over 400 hours. I had so much stuff. First of all, I have hours and hours of us fighting and that was endless and all sorts of things. At any point, I thought he might tell us to go to hell and not let us film anymore.

CS: He actually did do that, I thought.
Davenport: Yeah, but that was going on for a long time, so I would overshoot every time because I thought this might be the last day and I better get whatever I can.

CS: Has the movie changed at all since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival?
Davenport: No, not since Toronto. I was really happy with it. It won the best film critics’ award at Rotterdam before that in January, and that was a work-in-progress, so I had time to get reactions and fine-tune it.

CS: I hate to ask this, but have you had any contact with Muthana since you finished the movie?
Davenport: I have not, but David still talks to him. He got a five-year extension on his visa in the UK for asylum, and he was waiting tables, and he was still living in the basement of his film school last I heard.

CS: So the acting thing never worked out?
Davenport: That didn’t work out. They basically realized that he’s totally difficult. They caught on eventually.

CS: Do you know if he’s seen the movie?
Davenport: He’s seen it, and he started a one-man campaign to bring it down, threatening to sue us, and calling up film festivals and telling them he’d be beheaded in London if anyone saw it. It didn’t happen obviously.

CS: But he didn’t go to any film festivals and do any of the Q&A’s after the screenings? Did anyone want him to appear to talk about how he’s portrayed in the movie?
Davenport: No, he’s just too much of a nightmare. I could not deal with him anymore. By the time I closed the door, I had taken so much sh*t and abuse, I couldn’t stand it. Only one festival that suggested putting him on a panel and I said, “He’s not going to say anything interesting. It’s going to be a nightmare for everyone involved. I really don’t think it’s worth it.”

CS: What have you been working on since finishing this movie?
Davenport: I’m making another film. The working title is “41.5,” it’s the sequel to a film called “Always a Bridesmaid” I made in 2000, which was a feature-length documentary about my love of life, among other things, so this is the sequel ten years later.

CS: I always wonder about that, whether documentary filmmakers are interested in going back and revisiting their subject ten years later. Obviously, Michael Apted has done that quite successfully with the “Up Series.” Was that something that inspired you to make this sequel?
Davenport: I kind of want to do that with my own life. I think this one makes perfect sense because it’s about whether or not to have a baby by myself, since I don’t have a husband and I’m 41.5 and it would go so well with “Always a Bridesmaid.” I just love personal documentary films if it’s well done, it’s my favorite thing.

CS: Do you have a cameraman following you around all the time while you make this?
Davenport: I shoot most of it, because it’s mostly from my point of view unless certain scenes I’ll need to be on-camera, but mostly I’m not. That was how it was with “Always a Bridesmaid” also.

CS: So it’s a lot of testimonial stuff?
Davenport: Well, the film “27 Dresses” kind of ripped-off my film to some extent. It’s very entertaining. It’s almost like watching a Hollywood movie or something, but it’s all real.

CS: This is an ongoing film or have you set some sort of deadline for yourself?
Davenport: No deadline. I have funding from Channel 4 so far. With this kind of film, you just need to keep going until you’re done.

Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker opens at the IFC Center in New York on Wednesday, June 4, and then in Long Island at the Cinema Arts Center on June 10, at the Brattle Theatre in Boston on June 20.

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