About halfway through Ian Olds’ compelling documentary, “Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi,” the film’s namesake debates with a friend what would happen should the Afghan Taliban kidnap him.
Nothing, they decide. As fellow Muslims, they are safe. Instead, it’s the foreign journalists that he works for works that will suffer.
The conversation is just one in a foreboding series that punctuate the Fixer.
We know Ajmal’s fate before the movie begins. He will be kidnapped. He will be held for ransom. He will be beheaded. By contrast, Daniele Mastrogiacomo — the Italian journalist Ajmal is kidnapped with — will be set free after a ransom is paid and a prisoner exchange made. These are, after all, historical events covered in the press and the success of the the Fixer lies in the care with which Olds reconstructs events and introduces us to both Ajmal Nagshbandi and the harrowing conflict taking place in Afghanistan.
While ostensibly a film about the role of local “fixers” in wartime news gathering, the Fixer accomplishes much more. By focusing on the everyday details of reporting the news in Afghanistan, we’re left with a larger understanding of the internal conflicts within that country, its role as a pawn in a regional power play and the effect historical events have on the everyday lives of civilians.
Permeating these story lines is an Orientalist encounter of East meets West, and, on a personal level, what the American journalist George Packer referred to after the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival as the balance of power between foreign journalist and local fixer.
First and foremost is the role of a fixer, a job many news readers are unaware of. As Packer explains, the relationship is one where the Western journalist has institutional power while the fixer has local understanding and relationships. The Western journalist pays the bills while the local fixer keeps him or her alive and possibly unveils an award winning scoop.
Writing about his experience in Iraq, the Khurdish journalist Ayub Nuri gives his own description of a fixers role:
…in a war zone, a fixer is a journalist’s interpreter, guide, source finder and occasional lifesaver. Every major media organization in Iraq would come to have its fixers. And fixers, it turned out, were well paid. I was offered $100 a day, about 25 times what I could make as a teacher.
The same is true in Afghanistan with its multiple languages, fiefdoms and tribes to navigate.
We initially meet Ajmal while he’s working for Christian Parenti, an American journalist writing for the Nation magazine. The two interview Taliban, investigate the killing of an alleged warlord, attempt to witness Afghanistan’s nascent judicial system in action and generally try to make sense of contemporary, war-torn Afghanistan.
Because we know Ajmal’s eventual fate, the power of who he is at this moment in time takes on extra weight. We are drawn to him as we try to figure out who this is stranger is that will die?
The answer is compelling: a young man of curiosity, yearning, wit and ambition. After guiding Parenti through an interview with Taliban fighters, he admits his greater fear is his fiancée’s reaction should she find out what they’ve done. After witnessing a mock trial staged for Parenti’s benefit, he expresses palpable exasperation at the state of his country. When a recording of him talking to a friend about his work as a fixer is translated to English, it turns out he’s as savvy about Western journalists, their pay scales and the true nature of their relationships as any of them may be about him.
Ian Olds’ success in “Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi” is creating a rich profile of a man who’s fated to die in the most gruesome way imaginable. In doing so, he also exposes how both ordinary and extraordinary people are swept up in the tides of geo-political history.
In his essay on his experience in Iraq, Ayub Nuri writes, “Sometimes when you try to fix something, you break it even more.”
Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best New Documentary Filmmaker award, Olds demonstrates that that truth can take on an even greater, tragic meaning when Western journalists and their native fixers take on stories well beyond their control.