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Interview with Fixer Director Ian Olds: Afghanistan, History and Winning Best Documentary at Tribeca Film Festival

Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi is a documentary that follows Christian Parenti, a Nation journalist, on a fact gathering trip through Afghanistan. As he travels around the country, meeting with Taliban leaders, villagers and any other potential source of information, Ian Olds, the filmmaker, is in the back seat of the car, a fly on the wall, observing Parenti's transactions. In order to navigate this active war zone, Parenti requires help from what is known in the journalist trade as a fixer.

A fixer is a local person who makes contact with potential sources, estimates the level of risk in traveling to various areas and then facilitates the actual journey by driving the foreign journalist to the rendezvous points and serving as translator while there. More than a middle man, Parenti's fixer, Ajmal Naqshbandi was a journalist in his own right and as portrayed in the film, was a very savvy and intelligent individual. He died not long after the journey that Parenti and Olds took with him.

On another fixer job, working for an Italian journalist, Naqshbandi and the Italian were both kidnapped by a notorious Taliban leader. This man is known to have kidnapped and brutally executed several people. We are told at the start of the film that Naqshbandi has died in this cruel way, but that his Italian employer was released relatively unharmed. The rest of the film navigates how the fixer got to that point and questions why he was not saved. (For further description of the film, see the rest of my review on The Brooklyn Socialite.)

I caught up with the film's director, Ian Olds, for a lively conversation about Fixer, the state of politics in Afghanistan, historiography and how it feels to have been in two war zones in the past five years.

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Filmmaker Ian Olds

Robyn: Congratulations on winning Best New Documentary Filmmaker at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Were you surprised by that?

Ian: Yes, thank you. I totally was I'm always surprised, I mean I hoped, but my film's a bit difficult, it's not really a consensus film. I have gotten a lot a positive responses, but you never know if five people in a room are going to agree upon it.

R: Have you gotten negative responses as well?

I: No, not since the film started doing well. I mean I showed it to a bunch of my friends in the beginning and a some of them had some pretty strong criticisms.

R: Politically? Or artistically?

I: They thought the structure was too difficult and people weren't going to be able to follow it. I used to get this comment all the time and I really hated it, they'd say, " I understood it ( because I'm a sophisticated film person), but the audience won't, so you have to do things to clarify."

R: I think the average documentary watcher is pretty intelligent.

I: Right, exactly.

R: And now it is going to be on HBO so a lot of people will have the opportunity to watch it.

I: Yes, I'm really excited about that. I actually feel like I won two awards, 1. That it will reach a wider audience and 2. That it was named Best New Documentary Filmmaker at Tribeca.

R: This is your second war film...

I: Yes, the background is that I made that film, Occupation: Dreamland in Fallujah, Iraq, and I met Christian Parenti on that trip. He was friends with my friend Garret Scott, who I made Dreamland with. So the first 2 weeks before we started filming, we were just driving around the country with Christian and his fixer, and I sort of got used to the subject that way.

Then when we finished that film, I got a grant to make a film with Garret about a special forces camp in Afghanistan. Then, two days before we won the Independent Spirit Award for Occupation: Dreamland, Garret died suddenly of a heart attack in a swimming pool. Then I planned to abandon the project altogether. But the grant people said that I could revise my proposal and basically use the money in any way that I wanted. So I decided to use it to support myself for 9 months while I wrote a fiction script, which was about a journalist and his translator in Iraq. It was actually based on this book that Christian was writing at the time about the insurgency.

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Christian Parenti

He had met the insurgency early on and had some really interesting experiences. Its sort of in the style of Joan Didion Its called The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq. This was back in 2004. Then years later, when Garret had died and I was working on this new project, Christian told me that he was going to Afghanistan and asked me if I wanted to come to research my film. I told him that I would go, but only if I could film him and his translator. I thought that it would be research and maybe we would find a different film on that trip. This is indeed what happened after I had been traveling with Christian and his fixers Naqeeb and Ajmal, and some crazy things had happened, like the court room scene that you see in the film. I started to think that maybe the trip could be a film in itself. I realized that you could see the situation in Afghanistan five years after the invasion, just by understanding the relationship between the journalist, the fixer and the story they were following.

Then 6 months later, while I was getting funding together for that film. I was already becoming hesitant about going back, because Afghanistan was becoming a lot more dangerous, and we were going to have to spend 2 more months traveling around the countryside. It seemed very sketchy. During that period was when Ajmal was kidnapped. So Christian and I decided to go back and find out about what had happened to him. Initially, I thought about abandoning the project, just because it was so sad, and the idea of using this guys death as a dramatic device seemed really disturbing to me.

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Ajmal Naqshbandi

R: How long did you know Ajmal for?

I: You know, not long. I spent about a month with him. While Christian had done 4 trips with him, so he knew him a lot better. Then we started to realize all of the footage we had of him and what that story could tell, and it started to feel like an obligation to go back there and tell his story. So we went back and did all of the follow up stuff. Our job was to reframe it, so you take this person who was on the fringe and re-center him in the middle of frame.

R: It seems like it was quite a big deal in Afghanistan, that there was a lot of public outcry when he died, but it didn't really seem to reach the news at all here.

I: Yes, in Italy it was a bit more in the news because of the Italian, but here nobody really paid attention. I first realized that it was Ajmal, you know in that part of the film where you hear Ajmal's voice offscreen. That video was briefly online at the time, and I heard Ajmal's voice and I recognized it. That's the first time I knew for sure that it was Ajmal that had been kidnapped and that sort of haunted me. That became the opening scene of the film as a way to take this unseen voice and make that the centerpiece of the film.

R: How was it to be in Iraq? It seems like you've been through a lot of trauma, having lost two people that you were close to in the last few years.

I: Iraq was such a powerful experience and in retrospect it scared the shit out of me, but at the time it wasn't that bad. When I looked back and thought about all of the close calls, I was actually really worried about the prospect of going to Afghanistan, and much more afraid in Afghanistan then in Iraq, but then slowly you get used to it. I found it really depressing the whole time. The first trip was OK, but then going back again, it was pretty depressing for sure.

R: Why has it become more dangerous in Afghanistan?

I: The Taliban are getting stronger. People are becoming more and more disillusioned with the government and the Taliban is pushing even harder. The Taliban is basically encroaching on the capital. I think that there is growing support for them in the countryside. It seems less and less stable there.

R: Even Ajmal and his family seemed to express some small amount of sympathy for the Taliban.

I: Yes, I think he was a little sympathetic. It's like the grass is greener you know. He knew that the Taliban were brutal, but he thought that at least they upheld the rule of law. He called it that, even though to do that they would chop your hand off if you stole or chop your tongue out, but in his mind, he was starting to think that that was preferable to the corruption in the government. It happened a lot in Iraq as well. I think there were a lot of people who were very against Saddam Hussein and then when they saw how badly things started to go, they began to change their tunes. I think if the Taliban were in power, he would start to long for the Karzai regime. It was sort of 2 bad options and I think he was a bit naive in his perception that the Taliban would be a simple form of rule. But, a lot of people felt that way, that the Taliban weren't as bad as people said they were.

R: I've heard that for a long time, even before the invasion...

I: Yeah, there are different elements of the Taliban, certain elements are not the kind of people who are beheading people, or executing women in stadiums, or blowing up the statues, but those elements were also a big part of it too. So, it was mixed and a lot of people thought that the Taliban were going to get less and less militant as they got more engaged in ruling the country. The problem is that the Taliban were never very good at ruling the country. They had no policies really, they are simply against something, they don't really have any real governing structure.

R: Would you say that they are unified? The Taliban is such an amorphous term, how does that break down?

I: I wouldn't say they're unified at all. There are different factions of them. That's part of the issue. When you talk to the Taliban, you are not talking to some formal chain of command. It's a much looser organization. I don't know if they're getting more centralized.

R: Are the different factions communicating with each other?

I: Certainly, but to what degree, and whether or not they are all in touch with each other, or whether there are some fringe elements, it's really hard to know. They are able to keep finding soldiers to send out to be killed. The number of losses the Taliban suffers is enormous, and they seem to keep finding young kids in the border regions and in the madrasas, to send out to get killed. It's disgusting.

R: What is the warfare like there.

I: The biggest difference for me between when I was in Iraq and when I was in Afghanistan, was that in Iraq I felt like I was in a war. I was with soldiers, we were getting shot at all the time, and things were always blowing up around us. You'd always hear the sound and see the smoke from bombings. In Afghanistan, I never saw that. We saw that aftermath of a roadside bombing, but it wasn't nearly the same kind of combat. But also, we weren't in the south, or the far east where the war is really going down. I kinda lost my courage for war reporting after Iraq.

R: What sort of combat is taking place? Ground combat, U.S. bombings?

I: No, there is really nothing to bomb, the soldiers go around and then they get ambushed, they either get blown up, or they hear people firing at them and they call in air strikes, or they fire back at muzzle flashes. You rarely see the enemy. There's nothing to bomb until they get attacked.

R: Christian's main technique in reportage there is to go and speak with anyone who he thinks might be involved in the conflict?

I: Yeah, its basically what all war reporters do. You go to wherever you think the story might be. Whether its poppy farmers in the east, or the idea with the court scene, which was in my film, was that maybe showing how the justice system works would say something about the stage of development that the country is in.

R: Where does he get his leads? It seemed interesting the way that his relationship with Ajmal is portrayed in your film. Ajmal almost appears to be the journalist, getting the leads and organizing a lot of the connections.

I: That's true and not true, because basically all the stories we did were based on Christian's interests, what he thought was important, and then Ajmal doing research based on that. Although this does happen often with other journalists, there was no case in which Ajmal pitched a story to Christian. Christian has very specific ideas, so he always pitched the stories. Then he asked Ajmal things like, "Is it safe to go into this area?"

R: And how would you characterize their relationship? There were moments, towards the end of the film whereas maybe Christian felt like they were friends, he was saying things in his Afghan language like, "Oh, they don't really know what they're doing."

I: I think it was mixed on both sides. They were friends, I think, but it was also a business relationship. That's the weird thing about these fixer-journalist relationships. Ajmal was very professional about his job, as he should be. He enjoyed the company, and also kept a distance and wanted to make sure he got the most money he could. He was a businessman. That scene in the film is very important, because there has been a turning point in Afghanistan where Afghans are now doubting the intentions of the International community. Are they there to help them, or are contractors just trying to make money and are journalists just coming to take their stories back and leave them hanging. That scene where he was talking about us, it was so important to reveal that, because again you can see the big picture in a country by revealing the relationship between individual people.

R: And you realized what he had been saying later, during the editing process, when you had a non-partisan translator.

I: Exactly, and I assumed there would many more moments like that, because in Iraq there were so many of them. I had one person tell me that he wished I had cut it out because he wanted to maintain his fantasy idea about what the relationship was like!

R: I think it's good that you left in. It works in contrast to the theme of the film, which really functions as a tribute to Ajmal. As a documentary, it maintains its primary commitment, which is to tell the truth.

I: I'm glad it works as a tribute, that I never made it with that intention, because I felt that just to focus on loss, does a profound disservice to the truth, and to Ajmal. A focus on this devastating loss is something that we as a Western audience can relate to, but to focus on this man's life in the context of what's really going on in that country, is history empowered.

He didn't die randomly, he died at a very specific moment, in a specific place. The aim of the film was to invoke this web of history and power, in which he was caught, while never loosing sight of the man. Although I never conceived of it as a tribute, I'm happy it is one. Afghans who have seen the film have been really moved and feel like it honors him. I appreciate that. I'm glad it feels that way. One of the reasons why I started the film like I did, telling the audience that he was dead, was that I didn't want to use his death as a dramatic device for the film, by maintaining the suspense until the end. From the start the viewer knows that he was killed in a brutal way, then the rest of the film asks the question why. It unpacks the event. This also influenced the structural choices, rather then making it linear, the film flashes back and forth in order to unravel meaning.

R: That definitely comes through, I think, in fact, that the actual political leaders at that time, who could have prevented his death, were more interested in using him as a pawn then your film in any way is.

I: Exactly, and that was one of the organizing principles for me, when you look at the history of Afghanistan, you start to realize that its been a buffer state between various power players, the British Empire, the Russians Empire, then when you look at the whole Great Game thing, between the U.S., Pakistan, Iran, China, India all of that. It is historically a buffer zone, and then you see Ajmal, who became a buffer individual, between the Italians, the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S. He became an analog for the state. Not only that, also as a translator, he was already in a kind of buffer role, as a person in between cultures.

I never expected people watching my film to read that, but it was an important way for me to know how to think about the film and to know when to move back in forth in time, during the editing process. For me it was a kind of hidden structural key.

R: It was interesting to see how the Italian government put a lot of pressure on the Afghan government and was able to get the Italian journalist freed. Your film calls into question the behavior of that journalist, could he have done more to guarantee that Ajmal was ultimately released?

I: I think it's really easy to blame him, and some people go overboard. It is that simplistic narrative, "Oh the poor Afghan abandoned by the the Western journalist." At the same time... well in general I think there is a problem with the power dynamics. Here is this westerner, who came in and was able to pay the fixer more and more money, to put himself further and further in danger. The more danger you put yourself in, the more money you get, so fundamentally that's a huge problem to start with. But, at the same time, fixers do have their own agency, to deny that is it's own form of subtle racism. Then, the mistake that the Italian did make, which is why the Afghans are so mad at him, is that he didn't make it a priority to go to Ajmal's father, right after the release. In his defense, he didn't know for several days that Ajmal was still being held, but he didn't seem to ask either. Or he asked once and they said, "Oh he's free." and yes he was traumatized, but Afghans are very upset, because they felt he should have gone to the father right away.

R: How long did he remain in the country after his release.

I: Only a few days, because, again in his defense, he was receiving death threats. The family of Sayed Agha, the murdered driver, who was kidnapped with he and Ajmal, had surrounded the hospital where he was being held, and were demanding that they be able to take him back down south to find the murdered body of their brother. There were riots outside of the hospital, it was dangerous for him. So the security forces came in and whisked him away. Maybe he didn't have a chance to go see the father.

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Ajmal and the Italian Journalist, while kidnapped.

R: These were the U.S. security forces?

I: I think it was the Italian.

R: Are there forces from a lot of different countries stationed in Afghanistan?

I: Yes, every different area is under different control. At that time in Kabul, there were a lot of French and Turkish and some Americans and in the south it was a lot of British Canadians and in the North, there were Germans. So it was mixed, they would divide up areas, for different control.

R: The Alliance, right... How much is the average fixer paid for his/her work?

I: A standard rate would be 100 dollars a day for general work, then a more dangerous trip would be a flat rate. I know that for Daniele's (the Italian journalist) trip it was 5,000 dollars. Now Ajmal wouldn't have made all of that money. He would have had to pay a lot of people off in order to facilitate that, so I don't know how much he would have made, but it certainly he would have been maybe a couple of thousand dollars.

R: How far does that go in Afghanistan?

I: A long way. He supported his entire family on his wages, all of his brothers, mother, sister, father. An average wage is $70 a month. You can't really live off of that, but that's what the government employees make. He was freelance, he didn't always make that much, but some months he would've made several thousand dollars, other months he would have made nothing.

R: He must have been sort of a kid when the invasion took place, around 18, he was only 24 when you knew him in 2006. His father, in the film appeared to have a lot of theories about what was really going on in Afghanistan, a lot of distrust towards the U.S. government.

I: A lot of people in Afghanistan honestly believe, and Ajmal believed this too, that the U.S. is actually funding the Taliban. It's insane, it's not true, but one understands why people thought that, because the history of U.S. involvement in that region has been so complex.

The theory goes that the US are funding the Taliban, because they're Sunni, as a potential fighting force against the Shi'ite majority in Iran. I don't think it's true, but the thing is they see how powerful the U.S. government is and they see that the war is continuing and the government in Afghanistan is corrupt. So, from their perspective, it clearly is intentional, because clearly the U.S. has the power to do whatever it wants. That's what people think.

This British spy that I talked to in Iraq, who refused to be filmed, refers to what he calls, "The Fuck-up Theory of History" that people are always looking for these conspiracies, but often it's a series of blunders and incompetence that lead to historical changes, and not some grand conspiracy theory.

R: One of the things that Ajmal's father says in the film is that the chaos in Afghanistan actually benefits the U.S., the people who can profit off of war, the contractors who come in and build, the weapons manufactures and etc.

I: Yes, I think that's part of the logic, but I don't believe that for a second. The US would be much better served if they could keep their promise and deliver a stable Afghanistan, in terms of greater legitimacy, and strategic goals in the region. There are probably people who don't mind if this war goes on and on, but I don't think that's the basis of U.S. policy. Pakistan, made a lot of money in the 80's by fighting the war against Russian in Afghanistan, once they defeated the Russians, those paychecks stopped coming in. They had a lot to gain by keeping the war going. They are in a similar position now, getting funding to fight the Taliban, except that now they're in trouble becuase the Taliban have gotten out of control and are coming home to roost in Pakistan.

R: Why do you say that for the U.S. it is strategically a bad plan to allow the Taliban to grow?
I: I think to have a victory in Afghanistan where a Muslim state has been stabilized with help from the US and is in to some degree a client state, who will do what the US wants would have a huge legitimizing effect. I think it's a mistake, but that is the goal. Specifically in relation to Iraq, which is seen as the bad war, while Afghanistan is seen as the good war.

R: Is that goal likely to work?

I: No, I don't think so. But this was even predictable 2 years ago, I knew that a Democrat would win the next election. I didn't know it would be Barack Obama, but I knew it would be a Democrat and they would pull out of Iraq and escalate in Afghanistan to legitimatize the party as still being serious about foreign policy. And that's exactly what happened and the idea that they can just pull out of iraq and re-assert resources in Afghanistan is a bit of a folly. The problem with Afghanistan is Iraq. The invasion of Iraq fundamentally damaged the progress in Afghanistan. The shift of forces and resources away at that time changed what was possible during that unique window of time, when some Afghans were actually willing to be occupied for a period of time, if it came with water and electricity. Now, that window of opportunity is closed and people are so disillusioned with things that its going to get worse before it gets better.

R: Your documentary filmmaking is a geopolitical lesson for yourself and for the people who watch your films as well.

I: I guess that's true. I always think of them as historical documents that hopefully can be a part of the discussion.

R: It is a really relevant concept now, when people are questioning the media and where they can get real news from, what kind of sources that they can rely on with the decline of newspapers and the dwindling budgets for foreign correspondents. Documentary can step into this void and inform people about the world.

I: I hope it does. That is what I always want with my films, but you never know how many people you will reach.

R: Thank you Ian.

I: Thank you.

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