Editor’s Note: This is one of dozens of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in the narrative and doc competitions as well as the Discovery section. The festival takes place April 22 – May 3.
“FIXER: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi“
(World Documentary Feature Competition) Feature Documentary, 2008, 84 min., U.S.
Director: Ian Olds
Director of Photography: Ian Olds
Producers: Nancy Roth, Ian Olds
Editor: Ian Olds
Field Producer: Christian Parenti
Sound Design: Jim Dawson
Co-Producer: Gabe Maxson
(Documentary, North American Premiere)
Synopsis: In 2007, the Taliban kidnapped 24-year-old Ajmal Naqshbandi and an Italian journalist. Naqshbandi was one of Afghanistan’s best “fixers” – someone hired by foreign journalists to facilitate, translate, and gain access for their stories. This gripping, tragic story is a behind-the-scenes look into the dangerous and unseen world that happens before we get the news. (Description provided by Tribeca Film Festival)
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Ian Olds. “FIXER: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi” is the second feature documentary I’ve directed. The first, “Occupation: Dreamland,” directed with the late Garrett Scott, was about US soldiers in Fallujah. So it seems that I’m stuck in the war zones for now, but looking for a way out.
What lead you to pursue filmmaking?
I studied cultural anthropology as an undergraduate but was always a big film fan. One semester I took an experimental ethnographic film class and it completely shifted my perspective on what was possible with film language. It’s not that I wanted to make ethnographic film, I was actually primarily interested in fiction work, but it opened me up to a whole new way of thinking about how film could deal with meaning. That’s when I began to take film much more seriously and started to make my own work.
After college I worked as an editor for a few years and that’s where I met Garrett Scott. I was stuck in my own fiction work and he was in the middle of a documentary project that needed an editor. I edited “Cul de Sac: A Suburban War” story with him and that process gave me a new found respect for the documentary form while at the same time re-inspiring my fiction work.
That film was really a major turning point for me. I went back to graduate school and got my MFA from Columbia University. The invasion of Iraq began just as I was starting work on my thesis. I remember talking to Garrett at this point, wondering what the hell was going on, what did this new doctrine of preemptive war mean? Eventually we started talking about going ourselves and making a project together, and the next thing I knew I was driving across the Jordanian border, heading to Baghdad.
What prompted the idea for “FIXER: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi” and what excited you to undertake it?
Garrett passed away in March of 2006. I was completely devastated and when I received a grant shortly after from the Media Arts Fellowship to do the project Garrett and I had planned in Afghanistan, I turned it down. They told me to think about it and that I could do a completely new project if I chose.
I proposed a writing project about the relationship between a journalist and a fixer in Iraq. Fixers are essentially translators, guides and cultural interpreters and I’d grown interested in the subject from my time in Iraq, but initially never thought about it as a documentary project. At the same time Christian Parenti, who I’d met in Iraq, convinced me to come with him on an exploratory trip to Afghanistan and I agreed as long as he was open to me filming him and his fixers at work. At that point I had thought about this trip as primarily a research trip for the writing project.
I was scared about going back to a war zone, but once we got on the ground, the project took on it’s own momentum. The film quickly began to emerge and when our fixer Ajmal was kidnapped while working for another journalist, telling his story became more of an obligation than a choice.
How did you approach making your film?
From the very beginning I thought it was important to tell Ajmal’s story in the context of history and power. The story is tragic, but to simply focus on the loss would do a disservice to the man and the truth. Ajmal was a colleague of mine and to use his death as a dramatic device seemed truly distasteful. It was a very difficult thing for me to navigate personally, but ultimately I think the film attempts not to milk his death for dramatic tension, but to unpack the layers of meaning buried in his murder. So the question becomes not will he live or die, but why did he die and what are the forces that came to bear in this tragedy? I hoped that by unraveling the many strands of Ajmal’s story we would catch a glimpse of the broader crisis facing Afghanistan.
In some ways the film is intentionally loose. I am convinced that there are more interesting and honest ways to create meaning than simply to escalate dramatic tension. It’s a delicate balance, but I think there is a cumulative effect to letting scenes play out like this. For me the challenge was to evoke the specifics of the time and place while never losing sight of Ajmal.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The potential danger of the place is always a bit daunting. But it’s also really hard to raise money for verite projects like this where the outcome is so uncertain. I was lucky enough to get grants from the likes of the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, Jerome Foundation and others. Without that help I would never have been able to make the film.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
I think success as a filmmaker is being able to get funding to make the next thing. It’s certainly not about fame or wealth, these are documentaries we’re talking about after all! In terms of my personal goals, I just hope that I’m lucky enough to make more films and each one will be a new kind of experiment. I’m a believer in that idea that taking great risk is the only way to have a shot at making great work. And I’m not talking about physical risk (that’s much easier and probably unwise), I mean taking risks as a storyteller.
What are your future projects?
My plan is to focus on a fiction feature I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve also have been talking with Christian Parenti about working together on a project about climate conflict.