HBO Film 'Fixer' Echoes Crumbling Afghanistan

As a Taliban suicide blast outside NATO headquarters this week spread panic over Afghanistan's approaching presidential election, a new documentary highlights this chaotic and fragile democracy.

"Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi," which airs tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO, explores the corrupt world of post-9/11 Afghanistan, where the lure of the Taliban's puritanical and swift justice continues to woo the loyalties of the poor.

The story of the escalating crisis in Afghanistan is told through Ajmal Naqshbandi and his close relationship with American reporter Christian Parenti of The Nation, whom he serves as a translator.

Naqshbandi describes his dangerous work as a "fixer" -- the journalist's lifeline -- as "bringing one enemy to meet another."

Fixers are highly paid to use their local skills to arrange for transportation and interviews and to bridge the cultural divide in a foreign land.

What begins as an intimate portrait of two colleagues gathering news turns tragic when Taliban fighters kidnap Naqshbandi and an Italian journalist during a dangerous trip to interview a high-level commander.

Reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo is set free in exchange for five Taliban prisoners, but the attempt to save Naqshbandi is bungled and the fixer is forgotten, brutally beheaded by his captors.

The event and the film raise the question, "Is the life of a foreigner worth more than the life of an Afghan?"

Double Tragedy Hit Film Director

Directed and filmed by Ian Olds, the movie was originally intended to chronicle the rapport between journalist and fixer in a war zone. But double tragedy struck.

In 2006, Olds had just finished making "Occupation Dreamland," with film maker friend Garrett Scott. The film, about the Army's 82nd Airborne during the build-up of troops in Iraq, was short-listed for an Academy Award for best documentary.

But just before they were to embark on a second film, Scott drowned after suffering a heart attack at the age of 37 in the swimming pool at his California pool.

Just two days after Scott's death, the film makers were honored with an Independent Spirit Award.

HBO Film 'Fixer' Explores Beheading

"We had received a grant [to make the film] and I offered to give it back," said Olds, director of the 2007 film "Bomb" about teenage malaise. "I make fiction, and I had always done this with a partner."

But Olds, who had met Parenti in Iraq, set out on a trip to Afghanistan to explore making a film about Parenti and his fixer.

"From the time I was in Iraq, I was interested in the fixer-journalist dynamic," said Olds, now 34. "Over there I saw a whole new project on the subject and the mechanics of war journalism and see the bigger picture of Afghanistan."

As Olds was raising money independently, Naqshbandi was kidnapped and killed.

"My first thought was to abandon the project," said Olds. "There was just too much tragedy. Garrett had died and six months later Naqshbandi was murdered. It was all too much."

Olds said he was "so sickened" by Naqshbandi's death. The fixer had been decapitated with a dull knife from behind. Telling his story seemed "vulgar."

"You are basically using someone's death as dramatic device and that was so distasteful to me," he said.

But he said he changed his mind after looking back at the footage.

"He died in a specific time and place and the goal was to evoke the web of history and power he was embedded in and not lose sight of the man," Olds said. "I came to feel like it was an obligation to come back."

Naqshbandi, self-taught in English, was only 24, newly married and also supporting his parents and two brothers when he died.

According to Olds, a fixer can make $100 to $200 a day for the work, and up to $5,000 for an interview with the Taliban. By comparison, a government employee makes about $7 a month.

"That's why corruption is so rampant, not moral weakness, but it's not enough to support a family," Olds said.

"Fixers are integral to the news-gathering process," he said. "The Western journalist is interpreting the culture through their connections and credibility. You rely on them for everything, linguistically and culturally."

But the fixer also faces more of the risk, because they are often viewed as spies by the Taliban.

"The journalist takes the story back and the fixers are trying to support their families," said Olds.

Taliban Cull Sympathies

The film is critical of the American involvement in the country -- with flashbacks to the 1980s when the Taliban were trained to fight the Soviet occupation. The United States has also done little to reform corrupt institutions that shake-down poor Afghans.

Local Afghans like Naqshbandi are not certain who will take the upper hand in their country -- the American-supported government or the Taliban.

"They are careful to keep on foot in both places and stay neutral," Olds said.

Though Naqshbandi never believed the Taliban would engage in what he called "the Western habit of backstabbing," in the end they killed him and let the Italian journalist go.

A generic shot of a similar decapitation is partially shown in the film. Olds said editing was at times so brutal he had to put his hand in front of his face.

The gritty film, much of it shot with a hand-held camera, gives a sense of urgency to the deteriorating political situation in Afghanistan.

Since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban has tightened its grip and the insurgency has grown more intense. Opium production is at an all-time high and the government is riddled with corruption.

Sham Trial Highlights Corruption

In one scene, the filmmakers ask to sit in on a local trial, only to discover when the accused is sentenced to hanging and shows no expression, that the trial is a sham, filled with actors. Court officials then asked the journalists for payment.

Olds insists he has both a "sense of awe and a sense of despair" about Afghanistan's future.

"I think many Americans have the feeling that Iraq was a bad war and Afghanistan is a good war," he said. "But it may be too late for that."

Olds admits two war films have taken their toll and he is likely to return to fiction.

"I am very proud to have made these films and it was meaningful work to be present for history in a certain way, but it's not something sustainable personally," he said.

War reporters are "drawn back to these moments of incredible intensity, where life is stripped down and simpler," he said. "Petty concerns fall away as you get the story and you get it right and feel engaged in that.

"There is a great draw," he said. "But it's very dangerous. I feel it myself."