April 26, 2009 / 2:05 PM / in 9 years

Tribeca film focuses on beheaded Afghan "fixer"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When the coffin of Afghan journalist and “fixer” Ajmal Naqshbandi was carried through the streets of Kabul in 2007, locals wailed that the world didn’t care.

<p>Afghan journalists hold pictures of the late Ajmal Naqshbandi during a protest in front of the Afghan parliament in Kabul April 9, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic</p>

A documentary “Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi,” showing at the Tribeca film festival this week, examines the life of Naqshbandi as one of Afghanistan’s best “fixers” -- the local people who translate and arrange interviews for foreign journalists. And it questions how the world values an Afghan’s life compared to a Westerner‘s.

“For many Afghans the case of Ajmal proved what they suspected -- that the international community didn’t care about Afghanistan, they cared about their own and the life of an Afghan is worth less than that of a foreigner,” film director Ian Olds said.

Olds, a 34-year-old American, decided to make the film after seeing the importance of fixers in Iraq, where he shot his previous film, “Occupation: Dreamland” that took an in-depth look at a squad of U.S. soldiers.

Olds was filming Naqshbandi as part of a documentary on fixers. After his death, Olds said he almost abandoned the project but then decided to make him the film’s central figure.

“It seemed tragic and very distasteful to me to use a friend of mine’s death as a dramatic device,” Olds said. “But then the more I thought about Ajmal, the more it felt like an obligation.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, human rights groups say fixers are more at risk of being killed than foreign journalists because they are seen as traitors by their local captors and their lives carry little bargaining power.

Naqshbandi was kidnapped with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and Afghan driver Sayed Agha in early 2007 on a remote road in lawless Helmand province, an area most foreigners considered a no-go zone.

PLEAS FOR RELEASE

The film shows partly redacted footage of Agha’s beheading, and Naqshbandi’s and Mastrogiacomo’s subsequent pleas for release in footage taken by the Taliban. Two weeks later, after interventions by the Italian government, Mastrogiacomo was released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners.

While the Italian’s release made world headlines, Naqshbandi’s family say he was forgotten and when the Taliban then demanded the release of insurgents in exchange for the Afghan’s life, the Afghan government refused. Naqshbandi, 24 and recently married, was beheaded.

“He became this pawn in the battle in this larger power play between the Italian government, the Afghan government, the U.S. and the Taliban,” Olds said.

For much of the film, Naqshbandi, who worked as a fixer for several years, is seen shepherding American journalist Christian Parenti to various locations and interviews.

As one of Afghanistan’s best fixers, Olds said Naqshbandi made up to several thousand U.S. dollars a month compared to a regular Afghan wage of $70 a month in a government job.

“The film is not about the journalists that you often see, but is about this off-screen presence and voice, the unseen person that facilitates the journalist,” he said.

The film broadens its scope to examine how, like Naqshbandi, Afghanistan has its own history of being caught between two sides as in its long conflict with the former Soviet Union in which the United States quietly backed the Afghan mujahideen resistance.

Afghans, according to Olds, are now skeptical of western intervention.

“I hope people see it because there is this perception that Iraq is the bad war and Afghanistan is the good war and somehow it is a simple war and we just have to put more resources and money and all will be fine. But it is a disaster,” Olds said. “It will get much worse before it gets better.”

Editing by Mark Egan and Vicki Allen

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