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.