cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

Documentary film “Operation Filmmaker”: Muthana Mohmed meets Antoine Doinel


Storyville ran Operation Filmmaker, a documentary by Nina Davenport on BBC4 recently. Some clips in YouTube and elsewhere. It appealed to me because it was about a young Iraqi man: I lived in Baghdad in the 1950s.

After watching Operation Filmmaker I ran through my thoughts and immediately wrote them down: on the film itself and documentary as a genre. Then I checked for information on what happened to the star of the story and started to read the reviews.

The film has been played elsewhere as can be seen from the Operation Fimmaker website, and there are many reviews which can be accessed from the site.

A review  Everything Is Deracinated: Nina Davenport’s “Operation Filmmaker” in IndieWire by Michael Koresky [June 1, 2008]

John Power’s audio review on NPR is particularly good.

An article with more of  Nina Davenport’s views:

Nina Davenport on Operation Filmmaker in The Lumiere Reader

Two interviews with Nina Davenport:

(1) The Strand Magazine (U. of Ontario)

(2) ComingSoon.net

After watching the documentrary I had an overweening desire to write to Nina to ask what she had been paid to film Muthena, whether she was paid right through to the end for her own expenses or whether it transmuted into a production company (the film goes out under her as ‘director’) which she had to finance, and how much was doled out to Muthena over the course of the film in money and kind. Near the end, just before Nina decides to cut her losses, he demands $10,000.

This makes me wonder exactly how much such a project involves. Did Muthena gradually become aware of the amounts, which made him feel he should benefit financially as well. When he does ask for his money, it did seem he was asking the question, How much do you want to make this movie? Although in the finished film Nina Davenport  is heard and even seen trying to persuade him to carry on, she already has quite enough to make a film.

In the end, being cut short before the natural ending is as good an ending as one could wish for, simply because at this length the viewer is thoroughly engaged and begins to feel there will be a finale. There is no post-script. Not a person watching this film is not expecting one which will say what happened to Muthena.

Before Nina decides to stop filming, Muthena progressively sees and asserts on camera he is being made to look bad and is not keen on being filmed any more. This is true: he is behaving badly and he is shown to be. He says he is not interested in money and wants to be a free spirit. Though he is obviously seen (and depicted) as more than half pillock*, by this stage, his demand for money did not seem unreasonable to me. He’s the star of the documentary. They are going to make money out of it, why shouldn’t he?  Why didn’t Nina or someone mollify Muthena by offering him a cut of the royalties? If you’re doing cinematographic reflexivity, then why not include the dosh side as well. Professional films are made with money and for money. The one thing that didn’t come out of the final edit was what he was learning about that side of film-making.

Indulge me. After putting aside the notions of what this documentary said to me about film, I had a sudden flash of Antoine Doinel.

antoine-doinelle

Muthena Mohamed

muthena-mohmed-2

became Antoine Doinel.  One of the great facilitators of film discussion is youtube clips! You can go off on an Antoine Doinel track right here if you wish, but please come back.

Cutting to the quick: at first Antoine came to mind, as this afterthought, through looks and mannerisms: trying to be cool and knowing but usually coming out as a bit of an arse. Running rapidly through the permutations, it seemed unlikely that Muthena knew The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” series, but it also seemed almost inconceivable Nina Davenport had not, as a film student, studied Truffaut and Godard. The end of the finished film, Operation Filmmaker – the edited film as opposed to the filmed film, perhaps – seemed to have a nouvelle vague-ish quality. Maybe every documentary since the 60s has been squeezed through the cinematographic sieve of Godard’sÀ Bout de Souffle { Film blog, Everyday Cinephile, has a great still of Belmondo and Seberg and has a good summary}. Then again, maybe because the image of Muthena as Antoine is stuck in my mind and tickles my fancy, maybe I am forcing the notion into a film which does not possess it. Or is is that all documentaries that aspire to art, become nouvelle vague documentary style by default.

It is a bit more complicated than just Muthena = Antoine. After all, Operation Filmmaker is a documentary and Trauffaut’s Antoine series are fictions (even if based on the life of Truffaut). If you know Truffaut, you know Jean-Pierre Léaud is reputed to have got a bit mixed up as to whether he was the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud or character Antoine Doinel.  Operation Filmmaker is a documentary about Muthena: there is the obvious sense that Muthena is becoming a character in a film in the documentary his is in, and he’s progressively aware of it. To me, Nina Davenport is a chronicler to start with, (In this YouTube she says she was a camera for hire) but then slowly changes into the director of the film: she is perfectly aware this is happening, as is her subject. Even the edit (wouldn’t we like to see all the video she shot….) could not disguise how much she was in the end fashioning a film, which is fascinating for someone interested in film-making.

One of the side issues is that Muthena fancies himself an actor as well as a Hollywood director. He is good at playing to the camera whether to charm or in expressing his feelings. This person almost trying to burst out of the confines of film gets built into the shooting process.

What happened to Muthana? He has a 5 year permit to stay in the UK. No news of whether he persisted in film.

*Pillock is an English English expression for “A stupid or annoying person”

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November 9, 2008 - Posted by | documentary, film [its techniques] | , , , , , ,

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