The Perils of a Young Fixer in Afghanistan: Ian Olds in conversation with Williams Cole
Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi is a new documentary by Ian Olds which tells the tragic story of Ajmal Naqshbandi, a young fixer for foreign journalists in Kabul who ends up apprehended by the Taliban along with an Italian journalist. But while the Italian is set free, Ajmal meets a grisly death by beheading, largely because of the Karzai government’s indifference to his fate. The film features journalist Christian Parenti (also a Rail contributing editor) and is a skillful and important look at the state of Afghanistan and the complicated role of journalism in war-torn countries. Olds made two documentaries with the late Garrett Scott, one of which, Occupation: Dreamland, won the “Truer Than Fiction” Independent Spirit Award in 2006. Olds and Scott were planning to make a film together in Afghanistan upon Scott’s untimely death that same year. The film premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year and will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
Williams Cole (Rail): Tell us how the project started.
Ian Olds: Garrett and I were nominated for a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to make a film in Afghanistan about a Special Forces camp. I found out about a month after he died that we got the grant. I told them I was going to give it back. I didn’t want to go and couldn’t make the film. But then they said that I could do whatever I wanted with the grant and basically to just make another proposal. Well, I proposed to make a fiction film. At that point I was feeling there was no way I wanted to go on and make docs without Garrett. It was too muddled and confusing emotionally, so I proposed a film about a journalist and a translator set in a hotel in Iraq, a hotel based on a real hotel in Baghdad where I was filming with Garrett and where we also became interested in that relationship between a journalist and a fixer. Before we started Occupation: Dreamland we were spending two weeks driving around with these guys. So I wanted to write this fiction film based on that relationship. But then Christian suggested that I come with him to do an exploratory trip in Afghanistan. So in some ways, he was the motivator for me to get off my ass because it was only six months after Garrett had died and I wasn’t prepared to go and especially start another documentary. But Christian had set things in motion so I basically tagged along.
Rail: Did you know then that the story would be about the role of fixers in Afghanistan?
Olds: I think by doing the trip we thought we would find a new and specific subject in Afghanistan. But I kept focusing on that relationship between journalists—in this case Christian, who was reporting different stories—and the fixers he worked with. I thought you could tell a sort of structural story about the state of Afghanistan by looking at the journalist, the translator, and the subject. Maybe by keeping those three things together you could see a broader picture, because they would be pursuing this larger examination of the state of Afghanistan five years after September 11. We had a really good trip and in some ways I felt re-inspired. For me it was partly an experiment to see if I wanted to make documentaries without Garrett and, if I did, how would I make them? What would I take from the things I did together with him and what things would I do differently? But I was inspired and we started to raise money to go back for two more months to shoot and maybe do more dangerous trips to the south with Ajmal and the other fixer Christian would hire. But at the same time I was becoming less certain I wanted to go back because of my experiences in war zones and because it was getting more dangerous there. I was much more afraid of going to Afghanistan than to Iraq, partly because I was sort of head-tripping about Iraq and the close calls I had. I was becoming more superstitious and these doubts were growing. Ironically, that’s when we found out that Ajmal, one of the fixers we had filmed with a lot, had been kidnapped and horribly beheaded.
Rail: When you filmed with Ajmal on that first trip to Afghanistan what was your sense of his role as a fixer?
Olds: Ajmal was fascinating because he was so young and so together. There was a kind of mercenary quality to him as well, something I didn’t necessarily fault him for. He was definitely growing cynical in terms of how he thought of Western journalists. And he was also very conscious about playing both sides in a way, of never choosing an allegiance because he even said several times, “You know, we don’t know in five, ten, years which government will be in power. So you can’t cross the Taliban at this moment, just as you can’t cross the current government. Because it’s the nature of Afghanistan, the shifting political landscape, where you just don’t know who will be in power.” And so he was trying to play it as cagey as he could but also seeing this great opportunity to support his family and make money. So he started to take more risks than many fixers did.
Rail: Did that put him in a lot more danger or did he feel confident taking those risks?
Olds: It’s a very important thing to realize that the system in place is one where Western journalists rely on fixers to do important parts of their work and that that puts fixers in more danger than the Western journalists. They are often the ones that pay the price when the journalist takes a story back home for himself or makes a film. The fixer is stuck in the conflict zone. At the same time it’s too simple to just blame the Western journalists because that denies the agency of the fixers like Ajmal. There are many fixers who wouldn’t do what Ajmal did, who would think it was too dangerous and would stick to cities or areas they thought safer. Ajmal grew more confident because of the connections he had with the Taliban and other fixers in local areas. He was treated with respect by the Taliban he’d met and so I think he thought he was safe. He kept saying this thing about the “Western habit,” that the Taliban had not yet learned the Western habit; he meant that Westerners really didn’t have friendship, didn’t have honor in a certain way, whereas the Taliban had a Pashtun [the majority ethnic and linguistic population in Afghanistan] code and he was convinced that that code of honor would save him from any danger.
Rail: There’s a telling scene you caught on video when Ajmal and his friend are talking about you and Christian in the front seat and you guys are in the back seat.
Olds: Yeah, we were driving to a fairly dangerous interview close to Kabul but in an area that is controlled by the Taliban at night. Christian and I are in the back seat nervously smoking cigarettes and Ajmal is in the front seat trash-talking about us to his young friend, saying, “You know, you have to work with who pays best because Westerners don’t have friendship, they don’t know what it means.” I think he said, “They won’t even greet you on the street.” And then he starts making jokes and the guy asks, “ Will you let them take pictures in the village?” And he says, “If I feel like it I will, otherwise I’ll tell them it’s too dangerous, hide your camera.” And they all laugh. They’re basically laughing at us while we’re a few feet away. But in some ways, that scene was what I expected to find more of. That was kind of the impetus in making the film in the first place because I saw that going on in Iraq a lot with the U.S. military translators. I also saw Ajmal the fixer-translator as an analog to Afghanistan as a buffer state that has historically been caught up in varying international whims, strategies, and points of interest, a part of larger power plays.
And Ajmal, especially after he was kidnapped, became a sort of symbol of that in a way. He is this in-between player that is being used by every side, and translates between both sides. So, that he was talking about us like that was in some ways surprising but at the same time it wasn’t. I knew Ajmal felt that way a little bit about us but I don’t think he only felt that way. On the other side, he did like us, especially Christian, because I think they really became friends.
Rail: Was the plight of Ajmal acknowledged by ordinary Afghanis? Was there outrage?
Olds: Yes. I mean they released the Italian journalist and Karzai claimed that they had a special relationship with Italy, that Italy had built them this long road, so it was an exception or something. The next day the Minister of Foreign Affairs was on a televised address saying “You heard the president yesterday, this will never be repeated, and even if they kidnap and torture me, and I come demanding prisoners be released for me, don’t listen to me. Let them kill me.” And that was outrageous to Afghans, because people were following the case very carefully. Ajmal was not a famous person in Afghanistan before this, but this case was followed heavily in Afghanistan. In fact, I haven’t met any Afghans now who don’t know what happened. Anyway, in response to that statement by the foreign minister it seems the Taliban killed Ajmal a day prior to the deadline they had set. They did it in direct response to the minister’s statement and justified it by saying that the Afghan government obviously didn’t care about journalists. At one point they had Ajmal call a Pakistani journalist and say explicitly: “The Afghan government doesn’t care about my fate, it only cares about the fate of the foreigner.” The Taliban used that as a propaganda victory, which is incredibly cynical. But it’s complicated. There’s so much conjecture in all these things it’s hard to tell because the Taliban isn’t a monolithic entity and, as we know, there are many intelligence agencies at work.
Rail: What about the role of fixers these days in war zones? How is their place changing? I mean, I remember at one point in the Iraq War when journalists and fixers were pretty much non-targets and now that’s obviously changed.
Olds: When we started Occupation: Dreamland in Iraq, you would sit down and have breakfast at a table at a hotel and your fixer would meet you at breakfast and you would simply decide where you wanted to go and you would drive and pull over and get these really interesting, intimate stories. That’s obviously not possible anymore. One reason why it’s getting more dangerous for journalists, at least in Afghanistan—and this is kind of subtext of the film—is that the Taliban has the power to tell the story now. The Taliban is making their own media and they are making propaganda that isn’t for Western consumption but for playing to disaffected youth at the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They’re producing these beheading videos and videos of assaults on U.S. forces or whatever. I felt it was important to use a more or less unedited section of one of these videos in the film. The aesthetic of it is so specific—it’s just strange and disturbing. They don’t need sympathetic Western press. At the same time it’s not that simple because certain elements of the Taliban know they might start to negotiate with the government as a way to find lasting stability, and so they know it’s in their best interests to have better relations with a Western audience. But other parts of the Taliban are making their own media and don’t seem concerned, and that of course affects how they deal with Western journalists and their fixers.
Rail: What was Ajmal’s everyday experience like in Afghanistan? How do things get done?
Olds: In Afghanistan there are all these different ethnic and tribal allegiances. And there’s massive corruption, which involves trying to filter out every one of those connections. For instance, the other fixer we hired told us that he worked for the administrative women’s affairs office and they had to bribe a separate government ministry just to get license plates for their official vehicles. So there are all these webs and people basically taxing them as they go. And you can’t get anything done without it. When you drive to do an interview somewhere, you have to take an experienced fixer and the first thing he does is find someone local to the area either to be the driver or to come with you and be the point of access. Because as a stranger in that area—even as an Afghan of the same tribe—you won’t be accepted. So you do need these direct personal connections.
Rail: What do Americans need to understand about Afghanistan, especially at this time of renewed commitment there? What did you learn from being there?
Olds: It’s tricky because in some ways I felt similarly when I came back from Iraq. Initially I felt it was such a disaster, and that the invasion was clearly such a huge mistake. That’s all I could fixate on. It was hard to see the solution. And it seemed like that point had been crossed. I don’t necessarily feel the same way with Afghanistan except that it’s a total travesty because there was an opportunity there. Unlike Iraq, many Afghans were very willing to be occupied for a certain period. Maybe people would disagree with me, but it seemed to me that if there had been improvement in the electricity and services and infrastructure, there was a kind of willingness to accept an occupation for a short period. But the invasion of Iraq was a crucial point in making Afghanistan a disaster. There was a period of time where they could have replaced the warlords with technocrats but it would’ve required a massive U.S. military presence, because you’re taking on these private armies and essentially disbanding them.
Rail: But Iraq was taking away massive resources.
Olds: Exactly. That could have been done by taking the correct amount of resources and putting them where they supposedly belonged: in Afghanistan. But instead they chose the veneer of stability in Afghanistan, which was to leave these warlords in power; it was simply a continuation of the corrupt model and in no way created a truly stable government that is responsive to the people. That was the obvious worst mistake in terms of Afghanistan. And now the idea that sending 30,000 additional troops is going to solve the problem is ridiculous. Hopefully, the Obama administration is looking at this broader plan that involves Iran and Pakistan and all the regional players. But it does seem like it’s too late, like there was a window and now it’s going to get even worse. It’s hard for me to look at that objectively because it was so depressing to be there around the circumstances of Ajmal’s death. My second trip was completely demoralizing. And I couldn’t separate out how it felt to be in Afghanistan and what the future of that place was, and the future brutally cut short of this man. For many Afghans, Ajmal’s death was a crucial moment in their perception of the role of the international community. It was proof to them that their government was what they thought it was: a puppet regime. Essentially Ajmal’s death told the ordinary Afghan that the government would save a foreigner but not an Afghan.