Veteran documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport parses an ill-conceived experiment in cross-cultural understanding that began with the best intentions: Actor Liev Schreiber reached out to an Iraqi film student he saw on an MTV special.
Muthana Mohmed just wants to be a filmmaker, he tells a camera crew chronicling the way young people's lives have changed since America's invasion of Iraq. But his school was bombed and violence in the streets has narrowed his world to the family home. In 2003, Schreiber, preparing to direct EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED in Prague, catches the show and feels for this bright young man who only wants the opportunities he's had. Strings are pulled, arrangements made and Davenport comes along to document Muthana's Cinderella-like transformation from frustrated victim of circumstance to fledgling filmmaker. And then things get complicated. The handsome, 25-year-old Muthana is a flirtatious charmer who alternately says the right things -- he's grateful to be pursuing his dream -- and the wrong ones: "I love George Bush" doesn't go down well on a vigorously liberal set. He hates being a gofer; it's not as though he was poor and disadvantaged back home. Pampered by middleclass parents, he's never had to work, let alone fetch coffee and prepare trail mix. As the situation in Iraq deteriorates, so does his relationship with his hosts: They begin to see him as unfocussed and demanding, while he feel exploited. Davenport stays behind when the rest of the cast and crew leave, and continues to document Muthana's efforts to stay out of Iraq and find a way into the movie business. Their relationship too is eventually strained to the breaking point by his increasing hostile requests for money and assistance, and Davenport is reduced to confessing, "I always hoped that there would be a good ending with my collaboration with Muthana, but more and more I was looking for an exit strategy."
Davenport's film bears a striking resemblance to HEAVY METAL IN BAGHDAD, about a Canadian magazine publisher trying to help the members of Acrassicauda, Iraq's only metal band. In both, the good Samaritans' naivete matched only by the complexity of the ramifications that ripple out from their efforts -- none of the would-be do-gooders seems familiar with the notion that if you save someone's life, you're responsible for it. For his part, Muthana vacillates between entitlement and sullen passivity, which means he's exactly like his American counterparts. And for all her own frustrations, Davenport is honest enough not to gloss over the fact that what Muthana's adventures in the screen trade taught him was to hustle, toady and ingratiate himself to useful people. And she helped. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh