One colorful personality and a handful of first-rank screen credits sustain interest in “Mardik: From Baghdad to Hollywood.” Portrait of Mardik Martin, the Iraqi emigre who co-wrote some of Martin Scorsese’s career-defining pics before abruptly leaving the biz, has some frustrating info gaps. But pic nonetheless charms and absorbs in what insights are offered up by its subject and a genial Scorsese himself. Further fest and potential cable play are signaled before the feature finds its logical long-term shelf life as an A-plus DVD extra.
Son of an Iraqi secret agent, Martin developed a fascination with Hollywood movies (and dislike for his native Baghdad) early on, even getting a job as a teenager with MGM’s local distribution office. Sent to study in the U.S. and escape Army service at age 18 in 1958, he found himself cut off from familial funds when his father’s business holdings were seized “for the people” back home.
Still, he persevered, moonlighting jobs to sustain his enrollment in the fledgling film program at New York U., where he met Scorsese. Martin collaborated in various capacities on the director’s 1964 short “It’s Not Just You, Murray,” then on his feature debut, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” and docus “Italianamerican” and “The Last Waltz,” before serving as a screenwriter on “Mean Streets,” “New York, New York” and “Raging Bull.”
Creation of those Scorsese titles is explored at some length, though oddly without mention of “Raging Bull’s” credited co-scenarist, Paul Schrader. Regrettably, discussion of Martin’s sole produced major screenplay for another director — Ken Russell’s memorable 1977 flop “Valentino,” with Rudolf Nureyev as the silent-era sheik — cuts off just as Martin seems to be warming to the subject. (More time is spent on some personally treasured scripts that were never produced.) Specifics of Martin’s druggy freefall are underexamined, despite brief mention of a Los Angeles home lost to creditors and a pregnant girlfriend he chased away, both to his evident regret.
He eventually landed back on his feet — at NYU again, now as a screenwriting teacher. His students consider him “the ultimate B.S. meter,” a harsh but fair editor and adviser. He considers himself too old to get back in the Hollywood game, preferring to groom newbies for that challenge.
Helmed by Ramy Katrib and Evan York, docu is a lively, affectionate mix of vintage clips, interviews and some disarming simple animation (by York) that illustrates Martin’s various travails. Evidently still the best of pals, Scorsese and Martin are delightful in shared-recollection sequences. Some commentary by Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Schrader and/or Liza Minnelli might have boosted pic’s profile, but oh well.