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Jan 16, 2009

With her critically acclaimed new documentary, Operation Filmmaker, Nina Davenport proves she’s not afraid to tell it like it is—even if that means turning the camera on herself.

By FLYP Staff

Getting Personal
Nina Davenport’s third film, Parallel Lines, opens with an old woman awkwardly attempting to work the camera while peering wide-eyed into the lens and asking, “is this on?” Once the camera is pointed in the right direction, we see a smiling Davenport explaining camera operation to the woman before gently asking about her experience on 9/11.
It’s a light-hearted way to begin a deeply introspective and insightful documentary about how the events of the terrorist attacks affected average Americans across the country. It’s also a great example of Davenport’s open-minded and unconventional style.
“I love the excuse [filmmaking] gives me to explore the world and connect to different people,” she says. “I love being able to enter into people’s lives with the camera.”
With Operation Filmmaker, Davenport’s fourth and most recent film, she allows herself once again to get caught up in the action, though this time not so intentionally. The film follows the journey of Muthana, a young Iraqi film student who, after his school is bombed at the onset of the war, is featured on MTV in a segment called “I Live in Iraq.”
The profile caught the attention of actor and director Liev Schreiber, who decided to lift Muthana out of his circumstances by giving him a job as a production assistant on the set of his directorial debut, Everything is Illuminated.
Like Schreiber and the film’s crew, Davenport, who is hired to document the young man’s experience, went into the project naively thinking that the charitable act would be nothing but beneficial for everyone involved.
But what ensues is a massive culture clash between Muthana—who reveals a prideful, sheltered and egotistical character—and his Western benefactors. As the story progresses, Davenport’s growing involvement with her subject compels her to include herself in the film.
“I’m an American woman wielding the power behind the camera, and he’s an Iraqi man who wants the power. Meanwhile, our countries are at war…It just felt too perfect. I had to include it in the film,” she explains.
What starts out as a relatively conventional piece gradually starts to come apart at the seams as the director-to-subject relationship becomes troublesome. Unwilling to work, asking for advice and eventually demanding money from Davenport and others, Muthana grows increasingly intolerable. His actions force Davenport to make difficult decisions regarding her involvement with the project.
In the end, no one on either side of the camera is left unscathed by the starkly confrontational film.
Like the U.S.’s decision to invade Iraq, the decision to bring Muthana to the film set was fraught with serious problems from the start. Davenport is not afraid to address these issues, but resists the blame game. Instead, she focuses on the complexities of human behavior and biased cultural assumptions.
Operation Filmmaker is now available on DVD through Icarus Films. Davenport currently resides in New York City and has just given birth to her first child. Her next project will be an autobiographical look at the challenges of single motherhood.

Watch clips from Nina Davenport’s latest documentary, Operation Filmmaker.

A Good Idea Gone Bad
Operation Filmmaker, Nina Davenport’s fourth and latest documentary, did not go as originally planned.
What started out as a seemingly straightforward, three-month project turned into a two year journey. During that time, Davenport followed—and attempted to help—Muthana, a young Iraqi that had been plucked from the war zone and put to work as an intern on the feature film, Everything is Illuminated. 
Just prior to Everything is Illuminated’s production, actor and director Liev Schreiber had happened upon an episode of MTV’s docu-series, “True Life,” called “I’m Living in Iraq.” The episode featured Muthana, a young Shia film student, whose school had been bombed by American forces.
Guilt over the U.S.’s involvement in the war along with a desire to help an aspiring filmmaker led Schreiber to hire Muthana—a decision that would eventually backfire and become the fuel for Operation Filmmaker, Davenport’s engaging and confrontational character study.
The film follows Muthana as he slowly realizes his trip isn’t just a paid vacation and must soon come to an end. Prideful and sheltered, he becomes increasingly desperate and manipulative.
Meanwhile, the war in Iraq is escalating, and messages from Muthana’s friends family at home urge him not to return. Davenport’s desire to keep filming Muthana lands her in the middle of the conflict.
In the end, her struggle to maneuver through this problematic relationship becomes a prescient metaphor for America’s involvement in Iraq.

Check out clips from one of Nina Davenport’s previous films, Parallel Lines, which portrays a journey through an America emotionally torn apart by the 9/11 attacks.

Something Happened on the Way to New York…
On September 11, 2001, Nina Davenport, a New York City resident, was in San Diego, Calif. working a temporary job on a television show. When the job finished, Davenport wasn’t quite ready to return to her wounded city.
Instead, she decided to address her grief and distress over the events of 9/11 with a road trip, traveling along the country’s back roads and documenting people’s stories.
The resulting film, Parallel Lines, is a deeply affecting piece of filmmaking. Davenport is empathetic and non-judgmental toward her diverse range of subjects, which include single mothers, war veterans, teenagers, truck drivers, cowboys and farmers, all of whom share their experiences relating to 9/11.
The film is a portrait of our country’s human and psychological infrastructure, painted with rich imagery and guided by Davenport’s skilled hand. Through the stories of its characters, it manages to explore the impact of the terrorist attacks on a uniquely personal level.

Watch clips from two of Nina Davenport’s previous films, Always a Bridesmaid and Hello Photo.

From Bindis to Brides
Upon finishing her undergraduate work at Harvard University, Nina Davenport earned a grant to subsidize the filming of her first documentary, Hello Photo.
Shot over the course of a year throughout various regions of India, the film subverts the typical travelogue, giving the viewer space to wander freely through her evocative imagery.
With a minimal soundtrack and no voice-over narration, the film is a free-flowing meditation on seeing and being seen in a foreign land, the title taken from the children’s shouts to the camera—“hello photo!”
For Always a Bridesmaid, her followup documentary and first feature-length piece, Davenport uses an entirely different approach. She narrates the film, telling us the story of how her work as a wedding videographer has given her unique insight into her own psychology and complex attitude toward love and marriage.
Colorful and fast paced, the film combines footage of Davenport’s then-boyfriend Nick along with scenes from the many weddings she has shot and interviews with “spinsters,” elderly women who have loved and lost.
It is a deeply personal and insightful ride through one woman’s culturally significant anxieties.

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