After an award-winning run on the festival circuit, including the Documentary Award for AFI Fest and the KNF Award from the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Nina Davenport‘s “Operation Filmmaker is beginning a limited theatrical release this Friday, June 6. The film follows Muthana Mohmed, a young Iraqi man who appeared on MTV‘s “True Life” series explaining his dream of becoming a filmmaker. The episode caught the eye of actor-director Liev Schreiber, who hired Muthana to work on the set of his film “Everything is Illuminated.” Davenport decided to film Muthana’s experiences on set, which led to her personal entanglement in the situations that arose. Davenport talked to indieWIRE about the experience and her hopes for “Filmmaker”‘s release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I studied non-fiction filmmaking as an undergraduate at Harvard College and have been making documentaries ever since. My teacher was the filmmaker Robb Moss (“The Same River Twice, “Secrecy“); and after graduation, I became a Teaching Assistant for Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March“) and Robert Gardner (“Forest of Bliss“). I was very much influenced by both the theory and style of filmmaking taught at Harvard: cinema-verite with a focus on autobiographical filmmaking, wherein each student must learn to shoot, take sound, edit, produce and direct. I immediately connected with this approach, perhaps because I was already doing black & white street photography and portraiture, and loved the personal and intimate connection I made with the subjects in my photographs. All of my films have been made in the so-called “one-man band” approach: I shoot, take sound, edit, produce & direct (“Hello Photo,” “Always a Bridesmaid,” “Parallel Lines,” “Operation Filmmaker“). I am still committed to making documentary films, although I admit to being occasionally tempted by the relative glamour and potential riches of fiction filmmaking.
Please discuss how the idea for “Operation Filmmaker” came about.
David Schisgall, who made the MTV “True Life” piece that led to the story of Operation Filmmaker, is a friend from college. When Liev Schreiber saw David’s episode (“True Life: I’m Living in Iraq”) on MTV, he contacted David and proposed the idea of getting Muthana out of Iraq and bringing him to Prague to intern on the set of Everything is Illuminated-which Liev was slated to direct. David, who also studied filmmaking at Harvard, had admired my films and thought of me as the best person to do a five day investigative shoot. Our feeling at the time was that this probably would not yield a very interesting film; in fact, we jokingly referred to it as “The Kindness of Liev Schreiber.” However, the prospect of hanging out with the likes of Liev, Elijah Wood and Eugene Huetz (of Gogol Bordello) in Prague in summertime, and getting paid for it, was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Once I arrived on set, I soon realized that things between Muthana and his American benefactors were much more complicaetd than I or anyone else had anticipated.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
When I began filming Muthana, I had very low expectations. But I try to approach any film or film shoot with an open and aware mind, and I soon realized that what at first seemed like a fairy tale was in fact evolving into a rich and complicated saga. The conflict developing between Muthana and the Americans on set was the perfect metaphor for the invasion of Iraq and could make Muthana’s story-and by extension the film itself-resonate on a larger level. When the crew of “Everything is Illuminated” went back to the States and Muthana began making demands of me-for advice, money, visa help, etc.-I filmed those interactions, although I wasn’t at all sure I’d include them in the film. In fact, those interactions played a large role in the film, as the metaphor extended to my relationship (as an American in control of the film) with Muthana (an Iraqi trying to wrest control of the film).
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
It was difficult to get funding in the U.S. for the film since the protagonist is not entirely likeable. This was a much easier sell in Europe, where sensibilities tend to be more complex. As far as theatrical distribution, it is always difficult to get a deal if you’ve already sold TV rights, so I was extremely lucky that Jonathan Miller of First Run Icarus loved the film enough to take it on even though ITVS had the TV (and VOD) rights.
How did the financing for the film come together?
I received the first funding from the BBC for Storyville and then put together additional funding from TVOntario, SBS and YLE Teema of Finland, all with the same commissioning editors who’d funded my previous film “Parallel Lines.” The last money to come in was from ITVS. And now Films Transit is my international sales agent.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Filmmakers whose films I love include: Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Robert Gardner, The Maysles, Louis Malle, Molly Dineen, Werner Herzog, Fred Wiseman, Errol Morris, Peter Hutton.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
Someday I would like to make a fiction film, influenced by my background as a documentary filmmaker.
What is your next project?
I’m working on a film that will be the sequel to an autobiographical documentary I made called “Always a Bridesmaid,” which is about weddings, spinsters and my love-life (and aired on Cinemax Reel Life and Channel Four True Stories in 2000). The sequel, tentativly titled “41.5” will deal with, among many things, the death of my mother, my father’s sudden bachelorhood and a comtemplation of single motherhood.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
My definition of a true independent film is one where the filmmaker begins the project solely on his or her own virtually at his or her expense-or, from a creative point of view, where the filmmaker takes a leap in the dark when no one else is willing to put money on the line for their idea. Needless to say, most so-called “independent” films these days are hardly independent at all. I think films should be given additional credit in terms of festival acceptances and festival awards if they are truly independent, but sadly, I don’t think that happens.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Don’t listen to anyone else and follow your heart.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
My films themselves are my biggest achievement.