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Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi is one of those movies that elicits a visceral reaction from its audience. And after one of the more distressing climaxes—even more so because you already know what's coming—you'll see at the Festival this year, everyone needed a moment to collect themselves before Sunday's Tribeca Talks: After the Movie panel discussion. Moderator Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed director Ian Olds; The Nation reporter and one of the central characters in the doc, Christian Parenti; former Afghan fixer Naqeeb Sherzad; and the New Yorker's George Packer to the stage for a discussion about the risks people take to bring the news to the world.
"A lot of people need to know that this is how we get our news," said Dietz, complimenting the filmmakers. Fixer was actually borne of a tragic accident. Parenti had encouraged Olds to come to Afghanistan after he had developed an interest in making a fiction film about fixers (locals who assist foreign journalists with news gathering, among other things). Olds tagged along on perilous Taliban interviews with Naqshbandi, Sherzad, and Parenti, shooting candid home video-style footage along the way. Six months later, Naqshbandi was captured by the Taliban and murdered after a botched ransom. At first, Olds considered abandoning the project altogether. "At a certain point, it turned into an obligation to tell his story," he said. "It's very much an accident, this movie."
Each of the panelists expounded on the important role a fixer plays in the gathering and reporting of news. “When Iraq got incredibly violent, just to cross the street I had to consult my fixer,” said Packer. A fixer is not a bodyguard or an interpreter, but a journalist in his own right. Parenti said Ajmal wrote regularly for a wire service and sold raw video footage. “A whole generation of men—and some women too—began working with us because they thought this was an admirable career. And they were adventurous too,” said Packer. “I think there are some people who are genetically predisposed to this kind of work,” added Dietz.
As the discussion broadened to the political state of Afghanistan, someone asked Olds what he felt was the goal of his film. It had to be small, he said, because the issues are so large. “How was this war to this man, at this time, in this place?” he said. “In my mind, the goals have to be that small.”
But the big question on everyone’s mind seemed to be, given the incredible danger involved in gathering news from war zones and hostile regimes, “Is it worth it?” And the answers varied. Packer said he has gotten more cautious over the years. “In these wars, we’re a target,” he said, “and we never know when we’re going to step into the trap that’s been set for us.” Likewise, Olds said he wouldn’t go back to shooting in war zones. But Parenti thinks that some level of risk is necessary to find out who the people viewed as our enemies really are.
And what about Ajmal? What has become of his legacy in Afghanistan? Sherzad, who was forced to seek asylum in Sweden after he was threatened with the same fate that befell his friend and fellow fixer, said the day of Ajmal’s death is celebrated as a day of freedom by journalists.