It all began with Liev Schreiber watching MTV. This alone I found surprising. I imagined a New York egghead like Schreiber would have a special cable hook-up that only carried PBS, the non-tacky episodes of Inside The Actor's Studio (do those exist?) and the local NPR audio feed. Nevertheless, Schreiber somehow wound up watching MTV one strange, fortuitous night in which the channel deviated from its usual line-up of montage-heavy reality shows documenting the angst of oversexed twenty-somethings, and stumbled upon a heartwarming news story about Muthana Mohmed, a plucky aspiring Iraqi filmmaker whose school had been destroyed but whose love for film and filmmaking proved indestructible. The MTV cameras followed the filmmaker to a local bazaar, where he searched in vain for books about filmmaking.
Being a good bleeding-heart Liberal, Schreiber couldn't help but be touched by the man's plight. He decided to give Mohmed a crucial, potentially life-changing break by flying him to Prague so he could have firsthand filmmaking experience working as an intern on Schreiber's directorial debut, Everything Is Illuminated. It was supposed to be a win-win proposition. Mohmed would get the opportunity of a lifetime, Everything Is Illuminated would get a hard-working, incredibly grateful crewmember and perhaps some glowing publicity in the bargain. There was only one problem: Mohmed is an insufferable prick. Instead of oozing gratitude and appreciation, Mohmed showed up with an attitude, a chip on his shoulder and an American-style sense of entitlement.
It wasn't long before things start to go wonderfully, horribly and comically awry. When Mohmed is asked to do the kind of menial tasks that are the foundation of every intern's workday he bitterly grouses "That's not my fucking job." Here's a little newsflash for ya, Mohmed: when you're an intern on a movie or a television show, everything is your fucking job. If the director were to ask you to potty-train his dog, clean his septic tank with your tongue, then sexually satisfy his wife before making him delicious, delicious hamantashens, the correct response would be "Of course boss. I would be delighted."
Mohmed's bitchy, profane grousing proved to be an ominous warning of jackassery to come. Not much later, the up-and-coming asshole horrifies the film's doughy, Vegan producer by gushing "I love George Bush. He changed my life." Of course at this stage in W's sad descent saying "I love your George Bush" is only a quick step up from saying "You know who gets a bum rap? Child molesters. Also Hitler. Man, was that guy ever underrated."
There is a natural tendency to project noble and pure motivations on the oppressed and war-torn. Hopefully, nobody looks at a grim picture of impoverished refugees fleeing a murderous dictatorship in a newspaper and thinks "Boy, I bet that guy's a real asshole. And that other guy looks like he'd be a real jerk who loves racist jokes and treats women like shit." No, I think we all want to believe the best about these suffering souls even if we realize deep down that people who have suffered terrible hardships can be raging assholes too.
Throughout the filming of Everything Is Illuminated, Mohmed continues to lie to and manipulate his do-gooder Western benefactors. In a riveting scene, Schreiber talks about how Mohmed told him that his fears for the safety of his family only intensified when a bomb went off in front of his house. Except that it didn't really go off in front of his house so much as on his street. Well, actually, technically, it went off on a side street but he was concerned all the same. I'm surprised Schreiber's anecdote didn't end with Mohmed conceding "O.K, if you want to be totally honest about it, a bomb went off somewhere in the Middle East but I still felt threatened."
When given an opportunity to edit a gag reel for the film's wrap party, Mohmed blows off the task to go clubbing, then lies to his bosses about it. When Nina Davenport, a documentarian hired by Schrieber to chronicle Mohmed's experiences on Illuminated, asks Mohmed about his experiences in Iraq he sourly informs her that he doesn't want to talk about it. End of story. Like so many moments in Operation Filmmaker, the fascinating, bleakly funny documentary Davenport made about Mohmed and his misadventures in Western filmmaking, the scene is rich in ambiguity. Who, exactly, is exploiting whom? Is Davenport exploiting Mohmed by trying to get him to open up about his war experiences so she can get powerful footage for her film? Or is Mohmed exploiting and manipulating Davenport's Liberal guilt to avoid saying anything painful or revealing, even if it's seemingly central to his life story and the reason a filmmaker is following him around in the first place?
Whenever Davenport wants Mohmed to open up, he shuts down. But he's not at all shy about using the Iraqi victimhood card to his advantage. After Mohmed utterly fails to distinguish himself on the set of Everything is Illuminated he lucks into another low-level gig working on Doom, where he quickly weasels his way into the good graces of affable star The Rock. Mohmed wants twenty-five grand to attend film school in London so Mohmed, who is never shy about hitting people up for money, especially an increasingly concerned Davenport, simply asks The Rock for the money.
In yet another scene rich in ambiguity, The Rock makes sure that the cameras are rolling when he takes Mohmed aside and, a big Kool-Aid smile on his oversized mug, tells him to pack his bags cause the Rock is totally paying for film school! In Judaism the highest form of charity is one where neither the giver nor the receiver is aware of the other's identity. Needless to say, I'd imagine charity in which the giver makes sure his gift is being recorded on camera for posterity ranks much lower on the scale. It should be a moment of unambiguous triumph: the big American movie star helps the plucky dreamer achieve his filmmaking aspirations. But it's hard not to wonder if maybe The Rock's largesse should have gone to a filmmaker who isn't, you know, a lying, manipulative jerk.
In Operation Filmmaker everyone's motives seem at least a little suspect, including Davenport's own. Is The Rock's gift an act of simple kindness or is he buying a million dollars worth of good publicity for the cut-rate price of a twenty-five thousand dollar scholarship? Are Schreiber and his producer humanitarians or hypocrites angling for good publicity and clear consciences? What about Mohmed? Was he ever really the passionate cinephile of the MTV piece or was he simply playing a role he thought would resonate with Western audiences?
Over the course of Operation Filmmaker it becomes increasingly apparent that Mohmed has little interest in diligently working his way up the filmmaking food chain. No, he wants to be the Iraqi Bret Ratner, a rich, famous player with a mansion and a pool and all the trappings of success. The real Mohmed bears only the faintest resemblance to the noble striver scouring the marketplace for books about film.
Operation Filmmaker ultimately emerges as both a withering satire of bleeding heart Liberalism gone horribly awry and a strangely resonant allegory for the Iraq War. Like the Bush Administration in Iraq, Schreiber seemed to think that he'd be greeted with chocolates and flowers by a humble and grateful Iraqi eager to emulate our best traditions. Instead he encountered little but anger and resentment.
Davenport highlights these allegorical elements in a wonderfully droll film-ending scroll where she quips that she had hoped for a happy ending for her film and for Mohmed–who cuts her off completely after she denies his request for ten thousand dollars–but now she's just hoping for "an exit strategy". Davenport and Schreiber clearly envisioned Mohmed's journey as a neat, tidy little human-interest story. Instead they got something infinitely messier and more vital: a human story and one that says a great deal about the world we live in, filmmaking and the limitations of good intentions.