MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Robert Siegel.
A young Iraqi film student catches the eye of a Hollywood up-and-comer. They make a deal for a cross-cultural exchange, and a documentarian comes to catch their relationship on film. Sounds like a nice story, but nothing turned out the way it was meant to, including the documentary, which is now opening across the country.
Andrea Shea of member station WBUR in Boston reports on "Operation Filmmaker."
ANDREA SHEA: Who knows, "Operation Filmmaker" might never have been made if actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber hadn't been channel surfing. In 2004, he stumbled on an MTV profile of a young Iraqi film student in Baghdad, Muthana Mohmed.
(Soundbite of MTV segment "True Life: I'm Living in Iraq")
Mr. MUTHANA MOHMED (Iraqi Film Student): There was a famous place to show a movie burned completely and damaged completely.
Mr. LIEV SCHREIBER (Actor and Director): It basically was all about the moment when I saw him go to the book market and looking for books, anything, magazines, anything that had anything to do with film.
SHEA: As it happens, Schreiber was getting ready to shoot his feature "Everything is Illuminated" in Prague and he decided to help Muthana Mohmed by giving him an internship on an American film set.
(Soundbite of documentary)
Mr. SCHREIBER: ...in Baghdad, this artist was in Baghdad and he told us that. That was I guess my fantasy about Muthana.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ROSS MCELWEE (Harvard University) Our sympathies are completely with him if you see the footage of the destroyed film school and it's so poignant. He represents, you know, what's happened to the whole country, of course, but his personal story I think was very, very engaging.
SHEA: Ross McElwee teaches documentary film at Harvard University. He's been a mentor to the director of "Operation Filmmaker," Nina Davenport.
Ms. NINA DAVENPORT (Director, "Operation Filmmaker"): I was just interested in meeting a real, live Iraqi as opposed to the parade of victims across the television screens.
SHEA: Liev Schreiber hired Davenport to document Muthana Mohmed's experience in Prague.
Ms. DAVENPORT: But I quickly saw that there was this conflict developing between Muthana and his American benefactors on set.
SHEA: The Americans expected Muthana Mohmed to be grateful for his opportunity. Instead, he's blatantly resentful over having to fetch coffee and food for his higher-ups.
Mr. MOHMED: The most important scene was rolling in the set while I was mixing the snacks. Not my (bleep) job.
SHEA: In "Operation Filmmaker," Liev Schreiber and his producer, Peter Saraf, are appalled time and time again by Muthana Mohmed. He's not impressed with the hierarchy on set. He parties instead of working. He asks for film equipment and money. Tensions escalate.
(Soundbite of documentary "Operation Filmmaker")
Mr. PETER SARAF (Producer, "Operation Filmmaker"): You don't want to say something that makes you look bad or make me look bad or you think might make me angry at you, so you're always convoluting some kind of story. Just be straight.
SHEA: Finally, the Americans wrap the shoot, leave Prague and leave Muthana Mohmed behind, but documentarian Nina Davenport stays to film him doggedly. At this point, "Operation Filmmaker" becomes as much about her as Mohmed. After a while, though, he starts asking Davenport for help.
Ms. DAVENPORT: It wasn't I want to go buy clothes; it was, I need money to get this visa or I need money to survive. And I just found it impossible not to help him because there he was, I had money, he didn't, I'm an American, he's an Iraqi. How am I not going to help?
SHEA: But when Davenport eventually does say no, he threatens to quit the film. He holds her tapes hostage. Then, their relationship gets really ugly.
(Soundbite of documentary "Operation Filmmaker")
Ms. DAVENPORT: You're hurting me. I know you don't have any money but it's not my fault that you don't have any money. You spent the money. I'm not responsible for you.
Mr. MOHMED: Okay.
SHEA: This scene is a documentarian's nightmare. At a recent screening in Boston, filmmakers in the audience squirmed as "Operation Filmmaker" breaks boundaries and practically implodes before their eyes. Susan Steinberg was one of them.
Ms. SUSAN STEINBERG (Film Producer and Director): It was absolutely terrifying. I could hardly, barely watch the film.
SHEA: Muthana Mohmed watched the film and he says he hated the way he's portrayed according to Davenport. He has a job in London now waiting tables. Nina Davenport admits it's sometimes hard for her to accept that she's made a film that makes an Iraqi look unsympathetic. She also says if she knew how misguided the cross-cultural experiment was going to be, she never would've made "Operation Filmmaker."
For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.
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