As the expression goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And good intentions are what led actor Liev Schreiber to Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old student filmmaker from Baghdad who was featured on an MTV special in 2003. Schreiber was ramping up production on his directorial debut, an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated, and he saw in Mohmed the living embodiment of the project's intent to bridge the cultural divide. So he and his producers made arrangements for Mohmed to fly to the Czech Republic to work as a production assistant on the film, under the expectation that it would be a gratifying learning experience for Mohmed and his sponsors. With filmmaker Nina Davenport on board to document the occasion, the stage was presumably set for the year's most heartwarming DVD extra.
Then, reality came crashing in. As it turns out, Mohmed didn't behave as the filmmakers expected him to, which half speaks to their unfortunate naivety and half to the young man's dogged immaturity. Basically, the kid is a screw-up—generally unreliable, resentful of the humiliating PA work that kept him from set, and given to manipulative falsehoods to coax money, favors, and extra time overseas from his benefactors. (Mohmed's attempt to cozy up to his liberal producer by praising President Bush and the war also backfires.) At the same time, the filmmakers come off as hopelessly gullible and patronizing; they thought it would be a nice idea to have Mohmed get some real experience, but they never considered what would happen after his visa had expired. Who could blame the kid for not being so eager to return quietly to his war-ravaged home?
Much like My Kid Could Paint That, which followed the too-cute-to-be-true story of a precocious four-year-old artist through exploitation and possible fraud, Operation Filmmaker takes a thrilling left turn from its original conceit, and Davenport does a nice job rolling with the punches. The whole film could be seen a metaphor for America's misadventures in Iraq: Schreiber and company came in expecting flowers and sweets from a grateful native, and wound up in a quagmire.