NPR reporters don't do all the work you think they do, especially in war zones. The same could be said of reporters for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the TV networks — we rely, and rely heavily, on people called "fixers."
They are locals with good English who drive us around, interpret for us, set up interviews and sometimes even do the interviews. They assume an immense amount of risk in exchange for little recognition, but a decent paycheck.
A new documentary airing Monday night on HBO, Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, tells the story of one of these locals in Afghanistan.
'He Will Be Murdered'
Fixer opens with grainy television footage shot by the Taliban. It's spring 2007. An Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, is on screen — a hostage. He's pleading for help from the Italian government. You also notice a voice, off-camera, asking in English, "Do you have any message for your wife and mother?"
The text on the screen informs us that it's the voice of Mastrogiacomo's fixer, Ajmal Naqshbandi. It also says: "He will be murdered."
Ian Olds, the filmmaker who shot and directed Fixer, says he learned for the first time that Naqshbandi had been kidnapped through that Taliban footage.
"I had heard that an Italian was kidnapped, and that perhaps Ajmal was with him. And very quickly that footage that starts the film appeared online, and I heard that voice off-camera, and I knew right away that it was Ajmal," Olds says.
Olds had been in Afghanistan six months earlier, researching a feature film about the relationships among journalists, fixers and Afghans. He joined Christian Parenti, a reporter for The Nation, and Naqshbandi, his longtime fixer, for interviews and chats over lunch.
Much of the footage captures them driving from place to place, strategizing.
Naqshbandi also worked with other journalists, developing a reputation as a risk-taker. Mastrogiacomo hired him to get a big-name insurgent for an article, but something went wrong.
That prompted Olds to drop his idea of a fictional film and make a documentary instead.
"What it's seeking to do is take this off-screen presence, this hidden class of labor, the fixer, take them from the edge of the frame and put them into the center," he says. "You always see the journalist as the one who people focus on, who was kidnapped, but to stop there and go back and say the story's not about this journalist you see — it's about the unseen voice on the edge of the frame."
The images in Fixer come largely from Olds' camera footage shot before the kidnapping — and interviews with Naqshbandi's family and friends after the fixer's murder.
Olds also incorporates video shot by the Taliban for propaganda purposes. It's some of the most compelling footage in the documentary. This is where Naqshbandi's round, kind face is most clearly in the center of the frame. Accused of spying for the West, he looks into the camera, his sparkling, sad eyes imploring. "God willing, there is not any problem. These are all our countrymen," he tries to reassure his family.
'Always At Risk'
NPR's longtime Kabul fixer, Najib Sharifi, spent hours on the phone with his Taliban contacts, trying to convince them to release Naqshbandi, a close friend.
Sharifi was my fixer when I was in Afghanistan this spring. I watched this film with him in Washington, where he's visiting on a journalism fellowship. Sharifi remembers how the Afghan government secured the Italian's release via a prisoner exchange, but not Naqshbandi's.
"We saw that neither the Afghan government nor the foreigners did anything to help him, so that's quite demoralizing and quite disappointing to you," Sharifi says.
Sharifi found the film painful to watch, but he appreciates that his friend's story, and in a way his story, is being told. He also says that since the killing, fixers in Afghanistan have been much more cautious.
"Their life is always at risk. The Western journalists go there and spend some time there, and they come back, and [the fixers] run the risks the whole time because they live there," he says. "And if the Taliban want, they can always find them."
In its best moments, this documentary reveals, humorously and tragically, the delicate task of a fixer. What gets translated, what gets softened, how money and friendship, journalism and pragmatism are balanced.
Olds says he hopes viewers take away new insight about how news is gathered and about this war, which is so often an abstraction in America. But he is also gratified to hear that fixers like Sharifi connect with the film.
"That's really, really great for me to hear, because you're in this editing room, and you're trying to construct or reconstruct some version of the truth — some experience — and trying to do justice to these human beings," he says. "And so to hear those kind of responses from people who feel how difficult it is to watch, but feel that it somehow got something right, makes me feel like I at least did part of the job I wanted to do."