It looks like the exercise of justice in Afghanistan’s nascent court system, but it’s not until the trial’s end that Nation journalist Christian Parenti and his Afghani assistant, or “fixer,” realize they have been duped. They are watching a show, put on for their benefit. “This is for a documentary film,” the fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi politely tells his countryman. “That’s why they want to capture something real.”
This story first appeared in the April 28, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Fixer” chronicles this uneven understanding and mutual mistrust between foreigner and Afghani. “Capturing something real,” the stated goal of journalism, isn’t easy when everyone in the courtroom — and many in post-invasion Afghanistan — is maintaining the facade of national development, and local hospitality is often indistinguishable from corruption.
“If you show that scene to Afghanis, they say, ‘That’s all you need to show,’” said “Fixer” director Ian Olds, whose film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. The documentary was recently acquired by HBO Documentary Films for an August premiere.
Having made “Occupation: Dreamland” about soldiers in Fallujah, Olds was tagging along with his friend Parenti to research a fictional movie about fixers, the locals who work behind the scenes with foreign journalists as interpreters, drivers, wranglers and cultural counsel. But reality brutally interrupted six months later when Naqshbandi was kidnapped, along with an Italian journalist and his driver. The Italian was freed in a widely publicized prisoner exchange; the fixer was not so lucky.
Olds had by then returned to the United States. “When Ajmal was kidnapped and then killed, I thought, ‘I can’t go on with this project,’” he said of the documentary. “Using someone’s death as a dramatic device seemed distasteful. A few weeks later, it started to seem like an obligation to go back and tell the story.”
That meant taking a critical, sometimes uncomfortable look at the relationship between fixers and their employers, including a scene Olds later had translated, where their pal, the fixer, takes a rather jaundiced view of his American “friends.” “All of these journalists come in from afar for a few weeks or months, and they form intimate connections with their fixers,” Olds said. “And they promise things: ‘Come visit me,’ and ‘I can help you.’ Then they leave and often are never heard from again, and meanwhile the fixer is left in the middle of a war zone.” The fixer is also often caught between at least two cultures, vulnerable to being accused of collusion with the enemy.
As the film shows, Naqshbandi was, to an extent, playing both sides, keeping his options open in case a militant faction prevailed. Olds saw Naqshbandi and his relationship to Western journalists as a metaphor for Afghanistan itself, the battle over which was long-ago dubbed “The Great Game.” “It’s historically a buffer state, caught up in intrigue, and the pawn in a larger power play,” he said.
As the U.S. escalates troop levels in the country and journalists start returning, Olds has become fairly skeptical about the ability of even the best-intentioned journalists to break through the barriers he witnessed. “There is a question about what the value is of pointing a camera at the Taliban and asking, ‘Why are you fighting?’” he said. “It just becomes about getting legitimacy for your story and saying you were there.’”