Operation Filmmaker: A Perfect Example of “Help” Gone Wrong

A few weeks back, the PBS show “Independent Lens” featured “Operation Filmmaker,” a documentary that both the director and the viewer probably hoped would be a neat, feel-good narrative about a couple of generous Americans doing their part to atone for the damage their country has done in Iraq.

The story is this: A young Iraqi man named Muthana, a film student and aspiring actor/director, was featured on a 2004 MTV special, which the actor/director Liev Schreiber happened to see. Schreiber, grateful for the opportunities his own career had afforded him, felt guilty that the handsome, seemingly talented Muthana had no such opportunities.

And so… Schreiber arranged for Muthana to leave Iraq and meet him in Prague. The idea was that Muthana would get a respite from the ongoing war while simultaneously developing contacts and hands-on film skills.

The story sounded so fantastic, so American-dreamish, that the filmmaker Nina Davenport decided to document it, hence “Operation Filmmaker.”

Everything that could go wrong does, and yet no one but the viewer really anticipates this. Muthana is relieved, perhaps, to be away from the black-outs, bombs, and boredom of life in Iraq, but no one ever seems to take the time to prepare him for life in Prague. Sure, he lives in an all-expenses paid apartment with an incredible view of the peaceful city, but he feels lonely. And since it seems no one’s ever really set out any expectations for him or checked in with him to see how he’s really feeling off the set, it’s just a matter of time before Muthana starts stirring up trouble for himself and his hosts.

The patience of Schreiber, the producer, and other crew members is exhausted quickly. Muthana is petulant; he can’t understand why he’s pouring coffee and making trail mix when he is, after all, an aspiring filmmaker. He reveals that he was a member of Iraq’s upper class, and he views the menial tasks of the set as beneath him; the concept of working one’s way up the ladder, totally foreign to him.

There’s no doubt that Muthana is irresponsible. He waits until the last minute (on more than one occasion) to get a visa extension. When he’s tasked to actually do some real film-related work, he drops the ball, deciding he’d rather get drunk with friends instead. And when the crew wraps and leaves him in Prague, he lives rent-free with friends, clearly disinterested in resolving his immigration situation or his employment (or lack thereof).

I began to dislike him severely, but as the documentary continued, I realized that his hosts and other Westerners who wanted to “help” him were largely responsible for this train wreck of a story. Muthana was right when he argued that “all any of you really ever wanted was a nice story.” Everyone wants to be a hero, providing this handsome young Iraqi with a hand-out. Yet they know little about him or his culture, and they never take time to find out what he really needs.

It’s a common mistake among do-gooders, and one that’s worth talking about. If you’ve seen “God Grew Tired of Us” or “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” both about Sudanese refugees relocated to the United States, you’ll see similar stories of men who have survived terrible circumstances in their home countries, only to come to the supposed promised land without any real assistance to help them acclimate.

It was hard to watch this documentary because Muthana increasingly becomes such an unlikeable character. But the arrogance and naivete of the people who want to help him–and their complete failure to realize what truly constitutes meaningful help–made watching the film even more difficult.

Close Guantanamo? Wait Just a Minute.

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

If you’d have asked me two months ago whether I agreed that we should close Guantanamo, I would have said “Yes!” without thinking. Like many Americans and citizens of the world, I viewed the US naval base and detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the current administration and its foreign policy and defense decisions.

I probably knew more about Guantanamo than your ordinary American. I knew that the base was booty my country acquired (or commandeered) in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. I knew it was the oldest US naval base outside the continental US. I knew about the treaty governing the base’s perpetual lease, that it had temporarily housed both Cuban and Haitian refugees in the mid 1990s, and that Fidel Castro has allegedly never cashed any of the annual $4,085 checks the US drafts to pay rent on this patch of land in southeast Cuba.

I also knew that Guantanamo–American shorthand for the base–is actually a town in Cuba, a dusty, desert town where 30 year olds look a good 20 years older.

Like most Americans, I also knew that my government had used Guantanamo Bay as a legal black hole in the global War on Terror, converting facilities on the base into housing for “detainees” who are considered to be dangerous “enemy combatants,” and, at one point, using those facilities to conduct “interrogations” in which activities like waterboarding, hooding, and extreme sensory deprivation raised questions about what torture really is and whether “civilized” Americans would use it as a policy instrument.

So would I have said “Close Guantanamo” two months ago?


Without hesitation.

But then I went there.
President-elect Barack Obama, for whom I voted and who I support unequivocally, has articulated his commitment to close Guantanamo Bay as soon as possible. In a November 12 Washington Post article, staff writer Peter Finn reported:

The Obama administration will launch a review of the classified files of the approximately 250 detainees at Guantanamo Bay immediately after taking office, as part of an intensive effort to close the U.S. prison in Cuba, according to people who advised the campaign on detainee issues.

As of late October, when I visited, 255 men were still being held at the US military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) detention facility at Guantanamo.

Many of the men being held–referred to euphemistically as “detainees”–were removed from their home countries and transported to this island, where they have lived in captivity for several years.

They have been awaiting trial and due process (hell, most of them have been awaiting formal charges) ever since, with few ever seeing their day in court. Those who have could legitimately question whether justice was served, as military judges are appointed to panels that hear detainees’ cases.

A good number of the men have actually been cleared for release by an administrative review board. But here’s the problem: They have nowhere to go. According to sources on the base, the men who could leave Guantanamo Bay today can’t go anywhere because no country wants them. It’s too dangerous for them to go home. Yet no other country is stepping up and volunteering to give them temporary or permanent shelter.

There are things we can’t understand unless we see them.

Things we can understand intellectually or emotionally, but fail to grasp entirely until we’re staring them–literally–in the face.

And that’s the case with Guantanamo.

Close Guantanamo.

It sounds logical enough.

Easy enough.

But as with economic bail outs and battlefront pull outs, closing Guantanamo is only easy if you’re thinking about it from afar.

In the abstract.


When you start to think about the bigger picture, the longer term, the human consequences, and–especially–when you see it… nothing is quite as easy as it seems.

Do I want to see the detention facility closed?


But not unless we have a realistic plan in place to transfer men whose true lives are poorly understood into societies where they have a chance to live. Not unless we’re ready to acknowledge that the complete miscarriage of justice for which President Bush is responsible is likely to have effects that we’re not remotely prepared to handle.

Closing Guantanamo is the easy part. It’s what comes after that is hard… and which no one is talking about.