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Soon after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, a young and charismatic film student, Muthana Mohmed, stands in the rubble of the city's film school and explains to an American television audience that his dream of becoming a filmmaker has been destroyed - first by Saddam Hussein, then by American bombs. This brief, fortuitous appearance on MTV changes Muthana's life forever. Watching in the United States, actor/director Liev Schreiber stops channel surfing, utterly captivated. Feeling guilty about a war he opposed, Schreiber decides to extend to the unknown Iraqi the opportunity of a lifetime - to come to Prague to work on an American movie, Everything is Illuminated. On set, frustrated expectations complicate the relationship between Muthana and his American benefactors in what becomes a cross-cultural endeavor gone awry. Filmmaker Nina Davenport becomes increasingly entangled in the young Iraqi's life as his visa is about to expire and the threat of returning to Baghdad looms. Operation ... Written by
In this unique documentary, an Iraqi teenager named Muthana is flown from Baghdad to Prague to participate in the filming of "Everything is Illuminated", a film directed by Liev Schreiber. Muthana had been showcased on MTV as an aspiring filmmaker, and Schreiber saw an opportunity to help him out by allowing him to participate in the film-making process, hoping that Muthana would pick up the skills that would help him realise his ambition. Documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport was there to film his experience, probably hoping to capture an inspiring story of the dreams of a disadvantaged youth coming to life. What in fact happened in front of the cameras was a fascinating tale of shattered expectations, disillusionment, cultural divide, pride, denial, bureaucracy and incredible generosity that can only be described as "real life". One of the subjects of the film sums it up best in saying "what the f**k did you think was going to happen?".
As you may have guessed, Muthana didn't fit the producers' idealised image of a boy with a dream and the perseverance and ambition to achieve it when given the chance. It's not that he was, for lack of a better word, bad; he wasn't violent, unsociable, or hateful; he was just an average somewhat apathetic teenager, with the typical misconceptions about how the world works. However, he was facing the inordinate dilemma of whether or not he should return to Baghdad. His father was shown on video categorically telling him not to return, as he was given the chance to start a better life. However, staying in the Czech Republic was not a viable option either, as renewing his visa was becoming increasingly problematic, and he didn't speak the local language. Davenport followed Muthana with her camera long after shooting wrapped on "Everything is Illuminated", chronicling his work as a production assistant for "Doom", which was also filmed in Prague, during which Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson becomes an integral part of the documentary. She continues filming him through his attempts to emigrate to the US and the UK, becoming increasingly less of an observer, and more of a subject of the documentary herself.
I won't reveal any more of Muthana's fascinating story, which remains unsettlingly real despite growing increasingly farcical throughout the film. Many moments are quite comical, with the audience oftentimes laughing at the characters, rather than with them. At times it even borders on being exploitative, but it's difficult to call it that given the generosity of Davenport toward Muthana.
The film provokes a number of questions from the audience, especially regarding Muthana. Was he too proud? Plain lazy? Not as passionate about film-making as people thought? Or was the cultural barrier just too big? Did they just pick the wrong kid? Are those of us in developed countries too presumptuous, ignorant, or disillusioned about the youth in third-world countries? Are they any different from the youth in developed countries, all negative aspects included? Furthermore, the war in Iraq plays a crucial role, with news broadcasts on the war along with footage filmed by Muthana's friends in Baghdad interspersed throughout the film. While it may seem that Davenport was trying to make a statement on the war, the footage is quite pertinent to Muthana's story, and serves primarily as a commentary on how the war is perceived by the different characters. Some of the comments on the war made by Muthana and other Iraqis affected by it are particularly fascinating.
Overall I was very impressed by the film, and I was lucky enough to see it during the 2007 Sydney Film Festival. Though as a disclaimer, I must say that I found it much more easy to relate to than most people would, having grown up as a third-culture kid, living in Prague for over 7 years when I was a teenager, and experiencing first-hand the difficulties of the immigration process in numerous countries. But on the other hand, I think anyone will find a lot they can relate to in this wonderful documentary.
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