In the Hands of the Taliban
Editor’s note: The Fixer is now open for a one-week run at Maysles Cinema. Screenings on Friday and Saturday, March 12 and 13, will be followed by a discussion with Christian Parenti, war correspondent at The Nation and the film’s co-producer, moderated by Livia Bloom.
“This is the best fixer in Afghanistan, right here.” U.S. journalist Christian Parenti is close to breathless as he describes his friend, translator, and fixer, Ajmal Naqshbandi. They’re riding in a car out of the desert near Kandahar, following a meeting with members of the Taliban, a meeting rendered with anxious, handheld camerawork. The parties watch one another carefully, the Taliban armed with faces covered as they answer brief questions. Yes, “Pakistan stands with us.” No, they will not lay down their arms until the Afghan government “forgive us and support us.” With that, informed by the Taliban that they’ve spotted a “detective aircraft,” Parenti, Naqshbandi, and their driver take a photo with their interview subjects (“We’re both in it, right?”) and then take off, giddy to escape with their lives. Parenti looks into the camera as they ride: “And this is currently the most relieved American journalist in Afghanistan.”
Their deliverance here stands in sad and sharp contrast to the first scene in Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, when Naqshbandi, along with another driver and another journalist, La Repubblica‘s Daniele Mastrogiacomo, have been captured by the Taliban. This scene occurs six months after the scene in the desert with Parenti. After Mastrogiacomo pleads with the Italian government for help, you hear Naqshbandi from off-screen, as the film rewinds and freezes on the Italian’s face as he responds to his question. “This is the voice of this journalist’s fixer,” reports a title card, “He will be murdered.”
Ian Olds’ film recounts the events leading to that murder, mostly using interviews with Mastrogiacomo (who was released), Naqshbandi’s father Ghulam Haider, and his friends and fellow fixers. The documentary also provides an impressionistic portrait of Naqshbandi in several exchanges with Parenti as they discuss the risks and contexts of their work, as well as a concise history of the Taliban, one that underlines its status as an opportunistic force without principal or allegiance, funded and trained initially by the U.S. and Pakistan to thwart the Soviets in Afghanistan. All of this supports the film’s critique of the U.S. history of self-interested interventions in Afghanistan.
Throughout the film, Parenti and Naqshbandi’s conversations offer glimpses into the region’s complex politics and daily absurdities. This isn’t to say that their awareness of same is enough to save them. As they consider the increasing danger inherent in their profession, Naqshbandi suggests the Taliban are wily, if not altogether rational. They wont’ kidnap journalists, he says, because “They don’t have the Western habit yet.” Rather, “They are very wise guys. And they know the difference between a civilian, a journalist, and you know, a soldier.” Parenti is unconvinced that even a modicum of self-interest will frame the Taliban’s actions, insisting, “You never know, man, you never know.” His words seem to hang in the air, utterly ominous, as the scene cuts from their car ride to the Taliban’s tape of the ambush of Mastrogiacomo’s party.
That’s not to say Naqshbandi appears naïve or ill-informed. Fixer illustrates his sense that he is threatened by both the outlaws (say, the Taliban) and the so-called legitimate government. When Parenti learns that Naqshbandi is “being shaken down by corrupt judges,” the American tries to threaten one with exposure: “It’s important for people in the United States to see that there is a justice system in Afghanistan,” he argues, “Otherwise they’ll think that there’s no justice system, only things that don’t work, and then they won’t want to support Afghanistan and that will not be a good thing.” The judge allows the American crew into the courtroom to film the sentencing of a man convicted of murder. It’s a devastating moment, but revealed immediately to be a performance. The Americans are surprised and annoyed, whereupon Naqshbandi tries to explain to the Afghan prosecutor: “This is for a documentary film, that’s why they want to capture something real. The documentary film is something real.”
It’s a striking moment in Fixer, a documentary film that reveals and also scrutinizes the limits of that “something real.” The Afghans neither fear the West nor trust American “support,” previously been offered and withdrawn inconsistently. The frightening ambush video is an effective jumble of handheld chaos, just as the hostage video is a familiar series of steps: the confession of wrongdoing, the appeal to the government for help, the reassurance to an anxious family (“We are in the hands of Islam, in the hands of Muslims” says Naqshbandi. “And God willing, there will be no problems”).
The film contends that the horrific end of this kidnapping can be blamed on numerous parties. These include not only those Taliban who beheaded Naqshbandi with a blunt knife and uploaded the video to the internet (in the words of photographer Teru Kuwayama, they are incoherent and undisciplined, “like a bunch of fucking Orks out of Lord of the Rings”), but also the seemingly civilized Afghan government officials, like President Hamid Karzai and Foreign Minister Rangeen Spanta, who saw fit to barter for Mastrogiacomo’s release but not for Naqshbandi’s, as well as the Western journalists who depend on fixers. “These people don’t have friendship,” Naqshbandi tells a friend as they drive Parenti to yet another meeting. “They know you while you’re working with them, but afterwards they don’t even recognize you.” The fixers nod, their own reality opaque to the jousnalist riding in the back seat. “They take you to the edge of death,” Naqshbandi continues. “You take one enemy to another enemy, so they can talk to each other. It is a great responsibility.” As if on cue, Parenti asks, “Who are we gonna meet?”
Conceived and sustained by opportunists, Afghanistan is to this day a kind of wild zone, where deals are continually made and broken. To underscore the effects of such a system, Fixer features a lengthy interview with Ghulam Haider. He laments his loss, and goes on to excoriate everyone involved, from the Taliban (funded by outsiders) to the media to the Afghan government. As the film shows images of a freed Mastrogiacomo being greeted by happy family members, Naqshbandi’s angry father declares, “Our government is a puppet regime, a government of foreigners. That is why we expect nothing from it.” Fixer seems an effort to do right by his dead son, but as such, it is only a first step.