Directed by Nina Davenport
This year’s festival is subtitled Past/Present and is particularly interested in looking at the ways in which women filmmakers reveal how the past has shaped the present. Would you say today’s challenges and obstacles for women filmmakers have changed? And how do you think the situation in your country is in particular when compared to other countries?
I hesitate to be so blunt, but I do think film is still an extremely sexist industry. Just look at the statistics published each year by the fabulous Guerrilla Girls. They have fantastic billboards, such as one proclaiming, “Even the U.S. Senate is more progressive than Hollywood: Female Senators: 14%, Female Film Directors: 4%” and “The Anatomically Correct Oscar: He’s white & male, just like the guys how win!” Fortunately, things are much better for female documentary filmmakers, probably because the industry is less hierarchical. We don’t need anyone’s go-ahead to start making a film. But even then, you see a kind of sexism in the sensibilities of the festival programmers, a major factor in determining which films succeed and which fail, and also with audiences. And the majority of well-known documentary filmmakers are male.
Why are you a filmmaker and how does working with film help you tell your story?
I actually began my career as an artist in still photography, specifically black & white street and portrait photography, inspired by photographers such as Diane Arbus and Bruce Davidson. In the photographs I admired most, you could feel the connection between the subject and the photographer and I think that had an enormous affect on my filmmaking. I have been a subject to greater or lesser extents in all my films because I am interested in how people respond to being photographed. I’m also interested in my relationship to the people I film. Needless to say, Operation Filmmaker takes the subject/photographer relationship to an extreme.
Was the production of this film a learning experience for you in terms of documentary ethics and narrative as well as film production?
My film is in fact all about documentary ethics. The conflict that often occurs between a documentary filmmaker and his or her subject is normally kept out of the film, but since I’m an American and had control over the film and Muthana is Iraqi and felt powerless to control the film – and sometimes felt invaded by it – there was an obvious parallel to the American invasion of Iraq. This seemed the perfect set-up to examine an issue that lurks behind the scenes of many documentaries – that they are often made by people with resources about people without resources – which always poses a real moral quandary.
You have a very interesting way of blending the reality and the fiction of war. How do you think the representations of war and its portrayal in the media in particular affect the sense people make of war?
I think the way we sanitize the war in the news makes people more complacent than they would be if, like Al Jazeera, we showed images of dead bodies – or if we let scenes organically unfold and play out, the way they do in documentary, rather than reducing everything to superficial sound bites. I think today’s news media in the U.S. is of appallingly poor quality, it is actually much better in Europe.
Could you choose your favorite scene in your film or an anecdote related to it and tell us what you particularly like about it?
One of my favorite scenes is when Muthana is angry that I tried to set parameters on the idea of getting him a visa to the U.S. and he is so fed up with me, his life, and the documentary, he yells at me, “Fuck you! Fuck Kouross! And fuck David Schisgall!” I just love the idea of the documentary film subject totally rebelling and telling the filmmakers off. At the moment it occurred, I was extremely upset that I was trying to help him and his only response was to be angry, but when I watched the footage later, I found it hilarious. I also love all the scenes from DOOM and how uncanny and surreal it was that Muthana ended up on a multi-million dollar film set that was all about creating an atmosphere of war when he was trying to escape war. Not to mention, all one had to do to see war was turn on the nightly news. But by the time you’ve edited 400 hours down to an hour and a half, you pretty much love every scene that’s managed to successfully avoid the fate of ending up on the cutting room floor.