2009 Tribeca Film Festival - Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi Q & A
2009 Tribeca Film Festival
April 26, 2009
As a journalist and documentary filmmaker, I was profoundly moved by Fixer, an exploration of the relationships between Western journalists and the Afghani counterparts or “fixers,” who facilitate their reporting on the ground. In this particular story, one such relationship had brutally fatal consequences for a young Afghani man.
The film raises, but doesn’t necessarily answer, many ethical questions about topics ranging from journalistic integrity to negotiating with terrorists, which is part of what made the Q & A following the film so fascinating. The panelists were:
Moderator Bob Dietz, Committee to Protect Journalists (BD)
George Packer, journalist (GP)
Naqeeb Sherzad, former Afghan fixer featured in the film (NS)
Christian Parenti, The Nation reporter featured in the film (CP)
Ian Olds, Director (IO)
BD: Can all of the panelists give a brief introduction?
IO: I’ll talk about how we started making the film. I received a grant to make a film about a Special Forces camp with Garrett Scott but, sadly, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack so I decided not to move on with the project. I proposed to the grantor that I use the money instead for a fiction film, but Christian Parenti suggested that I come to Afghanistan for a month to do some research about fixers. I took him up on it, and thought that there was a film to be made about journalists, fixers and the stories that they are trying to tell, as a way to show a bigger picture about what’s happening in Afghanistan. When I came back to the U.S. to get funding to make that film, Ajmal [the fixer who Christian had been working with] was murdered, and so then I felt an obligation to use the footage we already had of him from the research trip to tell his story.
CP: Some of the footage used in the film was just home video footage from when we interviewed members of the Taliban. It wasn’t meant to be part of a film.
NS: I used to be a fixer, and a great friend of Ajmal’s. We worked together for four years. The movie takes me back to those memories.
GP: This movie fleshes out the strange relationship that journalists have with their fixers. You and your fixer talk about all of the things that you can’t talk about in an interview. The relationship is a balance of power. We depend on them utterly. When things got really bad in Iraq, we had to ask our fixers if it was safe to cross the street! But there is always somewhat of a distrust because you have different motivations.
IO: Yes. Daniele [Italian journalist who was kidnapped with Ajmal] only needed an “important name” to include in his newspaper article, which is ultimately what led to their kidnapping.
GP: I wonder if the trip to the Taliban [made by Ajmal and Christian Parenti] was necessary. Sometimes it’s not worth it.
CP: Writers are always under pressure from their editors to get a new angle. But fixers are doing that, too. Ajmal was always pitching me stories using the relationships he had. He’d say if I had the money, we could do this or that. There are market dynamics at play.
IO: Now that the Taliban are creating their own media, they don’t need Western journalists to get their story out, so it may be more dangerous for journalists than it used to be.
NS: The Taliban makes these films to discourage people from working with Westerners as much as to encourage new recruits.
CP: Also to terrorize urban populations. There are several conflicts going on, including urban vs. rural.
BD (To Naqeeb): What are you doing now?
NS: I am living in Sweden. I got asylum in January 2008. It was not because Ajmal was killed. I received life threats before he was killed.
Audience Question: Can you explain the timing of the exchange of the Italian journalist for the Taliban's requested prisoners, and how Ajmal got left behind?
IO: We spent a long time trying to unpack all of the details. We showed the simplest possible version in the film that we believe to be true but it’s actually very complicated. No one knows all of the details.
CP: What is seems happened is that the Taliban required five prisoners and 2 million dollars in exchange for the return of the journalists. The American government won’t negotiate with terrorists, so the Italian government was doing this deal behind their backs. In the chaos of the negotiation, the Italians didn’t realize that one of the requested prisoners had actually flipped and was a spy for the Americans, so they substituted him for Dedullah’s little brother [Dedullah was the leader of the local faction responsible for the kidnapping.] But that was not the person who the Taliban requested, so they held Ajmal behind instead of giving him up. All of the attention helped them realize that Ajmal may be worth more dead than alive because his death would create tension between the Afghani people and their government. The people questioned how the Italian journalist could be released but not the Afghani one.
BD: The Center for Protection of Journalists discourages paying ransom for journalists. We’re also guilty of initially focusing on the Italian journalist, but when their Afghani driver and fellow prisoner was killed, we swung into high gear for Ajmal. We even wrote a letter directly to the Taliban pleading his case but in the end it’s pointless. We always have to weigh the risk of giving too much publicity to a case because it can raise the price for an individual captive, or the Taliban can use the fact that a prisoner becomes high profile to “prove” that they are spies.
Audience Question: Tell us more about the court scene. [A scene in which a local Afghan judge tries to prove how well the justice system is working by having the filmmakers shoot a staged trial, unbeknownst to them.]
IO: We shot that scene during my research trip and that was when I started to realize, “Oh. There is a movie here.”
CP: It became clear to us that it couldn’t be real about 30 minutes into the trial, because everyone seemed to be reciting lines from a script. It turns out that they were re-enacting a famous trial from the 70’s.
Audience Question: I don’t know if I buy into the morals and ethics of “not negotiating for terror.” Who are we to decide that someone’s life is not worth fighting for? Could you all speak about that?
BD: For us, it’s a practical approach, not a moral approach. It puts others at a heightened risk in the future if demands are met for release of prisoners. We’d prefer to encourage journalists to be more careful.
GP: I think that the Italian government does not look good in this film by not making the release of Ajmal part of their original negotiation. The same thing just happened in Iraq where two Italian women working for an NGO were kidnapped for ransom. The Italian government met their demands and the next day, an Irish journalist, Margaret Hasan, was kidnapped.
NS: The Afghanis were really angered by this. They think that the Afghani government is not actually there for them—that it is ruled from the outside.
CP: There’s a trajectory. There was a wave of kidnappings after Ajmal, and people stopped doing Taliban interviews, but criminal gangs also get involved. The kidnappings are not always initiated by the Taliban.
Audience Question: Do Western journalists really look at fixers as equals in the journalism field?
CP: Not all fixers are journalists themselves, but Ajmal was a reporter for a Japanese wire service and sometimes sold raw video. Arranging these interviews for us is not like arranging for a sandwich—it is serious journalistic work that involves research and investigation.
GP: Many of these countries didn’t even have journalism before. Westerners came in and instituted a journalistic standard. Educated Afghanis and Iraqis saw being a fixer as an opportunity to learn about the field. However, there was a time when some Americans were taking all the credit for their fixers’ work. Now, newspapers will credit local fixers by name if the person wants them to.