As a journalist in Afghanistan, or Pakistan... Or Iraq. Or any other war-ravaged land where you don't speak the language, let alone the dialect of the region in which you're expected to unearth and unravel a never-before-told story, there is only one way to get that story: you hire a fixer.
A fixer: translator, shepherd, travel agent, private investigator, Rolodex and secretary, rolled into one for the journalist in a foreign land. To describe these ghostlike figures as indispensable is barely sufficient, since without them, the bylines of many celebrated foreign correspondents and the critical stories they propel back to the West, may cease to exist.
In 2005 and 2006, one of these correspondents, an American named Christian Parenti, filed several reports from Afghanistan for the The Nation. He used a fixer called Ajmal Naqshbandi, a 24-year old cherub-faced Pashtun from Kabul. Parenti left Afghanistan at the end of 2006, and Naqshbandi moved on to another project, this time with veteran Italian radioman, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, sent to cover the war for La Repubblica.
En route to meet with Taliban commanders for an interview in March of 2007, the team is ambushed and kidnapped by a militant group led by Mullah Dadullah -- a close aide of Mullah Omar, who was known to boast about his orchestration of various Shia massacres and was once described as "the backbone of the Taliban." Although Italy secured Mastrogiacomo's release, Naqshbandi, in a move that sparked outrage across Afghanistan, was beheaded by his captors a few weeks later.
Ian Olds' Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi is the story of one of the thousands of silhouettes who roam war-zones every day so that we, thousands of miles away, can grasp what is happening on the front-line of wars that affect life on this continent too.
The first time we come face to face with the fixer, he standing at the base of a sandy mountainside in Kandahar, a southern province home to the second largest city in Afghanistan. Parenti is there too, behind the camera. He swings the machine around erratically, before the picture suddenly unblurs and a man comes into focus -- his head conspiratorially wrapped in black scarves to reveal only the top third of a wrinkled, umber face. The man dawdles in the sand as he shifts the weight of the rocket launcher hanging from his shoulder, from one side to the other. Then Parenti pans left, and lands on two more Taliban soldiers, their faces also concealed, Kalashnikovs dangling in their hands.
This is Naqshbandi's life; ferrying one enemy to another on a daily basis, in abandoned buildings and isolated swatches of desert in locations that regularly make headlines as the latest dire front for NATO and American forces. On this occasion, Naqshbandi has managed to arrange a meeting for Parenti with active Taliban fighters. The gun-toting interviewees confirm that Pakistan has been supporting the Afghani insurgency after a series of questions from Parenti, whose voice is filtered then echoed in the local dialect by Naqshbandi.
With his plump cheeks and a smile that is at once mischievous and ingenuous, Olds' protagonist is instantly beguiling. Perhaps because we know he is destined, unfairly, for such a horrific end, we are quick to take his side.
But Naqshbandi is an enigma, at first innocent and sweet, with each frame his motives are less obivious. In one sequence, Naqshbandi talks with a friend about his work while Parenti and Olds sit obliviously in the back of the car -- neither speaks the local language. His friend asks if the reporters will take photos in the village. "If I feel like it I'll let them," Naqshbandi says, "Or I'll just tell them its too dangerous -- 'hide your camera they'll kill us!'"
Ultimately for Naqshabandi, Parenti is a paycheck -- and a meager one at that, complaining that The Nation pays nothings compared to the major papers and broadcasters.
"Money matters," he tells his friend. "Because these people don't have friendship. They don't know anything about it. They know you while you're working with them, but after that they don't even recognize you. These people are all the same; European, American, from London, from anywhere."
In Fixer , the audience is transplanted back and forth from Parenti and Naqshbandi's experience in 2006 -- at times nerve-racking but generally successful from a journalistic point of view -- to grainy Taliban footage of their hostages and other military victories. The Taliban footage is one of the most spectacular elements in the film, raw and unnerving, it offers a glimpse into the other side; an eerie glimpse, but an important one. One video shows the gruesome decapitation of Naqshbandi and Mastrogiacomo's driver, censored to the point that we avoid seeing his head being sawn off, but every other part of the victims body, and his killer's working arms, are visible as the Taliban's sentence is carried out.
Old's own work behind the camera is thoughtful and beautiful, certainly intensified by an elegiac soundtrack designed by Jim Dawson, who worked with the director on his critically acclaimed documentary Occupation: Dreamland, which followed a deployment of American soldiers in Fallujah.
When Old languidly pans across boundless, arid landscapes, it seems amazing that it is this land -- a deserted expanse of rock and dust -- that torments a military machine backed by billions of dollars and the most sophisticated defense technology in the world.
Perhaps the most tragic layer of Fixer, is the hopeless chaos in which Afghanistan is drowned; a growing insurgency; a flaccid government; a people bereft of trust in its 'elected' leaders and repulsed but scared to death of gun-wielding insurgents and regional warlords. And this was in 2006; three years later, the country is mired in a bloody battle exacerbated by a second front in Northern Pakistan, and a heaving insurgency determined to sabotage the impending election.
But this is life in Afghanistan; it has been so for decades. And one of the most amusing moments in Fixer, happens immediately after the Kandahar meeting when Parenti asks Naqshbandi if he'll tell his fiance about their day's work. "No, no not at all" he exclaims, "She will kill me." The angry girlfriend -- not the militants -- the real danger, Parenti jokes.
Last year, James Nachtwey -- arguably the modern-day god(father) of war photography -- was bestowed the coveted President's Award at the Overseas Press Club for the fifth time. He dedicated his prize to the Naqshbandis:
"We all know the value of colleagues who often go unsung -- the fixers and translators and drivers who take such great personal risks... to make what we do possible. Whatever abilities we might have, we absolutely need the assistance of people who know the language and the culture and how to navigate hostile terrain. I don't know how many times I've only been as good as my driver. They love their countries. They truly value journalism. When we leave, they stay."
Indeed, for Naqshbandi, Nachtwey's words are especially and tragically germane. When we leave, they stay.
Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi premieres tonight at 9 pm on HBO.
Follow Katya Wachtel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/katyawachtel