The death of a young Afghani hired by Western journalists is removed from the newspaper margins and put front and center in docu helmer Ian Olds’ unflinching “Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi.” Kidnapped by the Taliban in 2007 along with Italo journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Naqshbandi was beheaded while Mastrogiacomo was freed in a prisoner exchange. Olds investigates the reasons for Naqshbandi’s abandonment, briefly tracing the history of the Afghan conflict and the geopolitical shell games while keeping the man himself always in focus. Rough video and gruesome footage shouldn’t hinder Sundance Channel and other cablers from news-worthy airings.
A “fixer” is a combination of translator, information gatherer and point man, smoothing the way for foreign reporters by arranging interviews, transportation and the like. Naqshbandi was 24 at the time of his death and already a veteran of the business, prized for an intelligence and sensitivity beyond his years. Docu moves back and forth — the editing is uneven — within a period of six months, first when he was working with the Nation reporter Christian Parenti (here also acting as field producer) and later following his murder.
Mastrogiacomo hired Naqshbandi to secure an interview with the Taliban’s senior military commander, Mullah Dadullah, but Dadullah and his men kidnapped the duo along with their driver, holding them for ransom to effect a prisoner exchange. The driver was killed and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to a barter, but only the Italian was released and the president’s promises proved hollow.
While docu’s piecing together of the facts is sound, it adopts a faux-naive surprise that the life of a foreign journalist is worth more than that of an Afghan fixer. Olds, co-director of the powerful docu “Occupation: Dreamland,” is right to express outrage, but any expectation of equality flies against his obvious familiarity with both the Afghan government’s rampant corruption and the Western powers’ chillingly blase attitude toward those considered dispensable.
One of the most intriguing moments comes when fellow fixer and former Taliban member Nawab Mohammad suggests that orders for Naqshbandi’s beheading came from Pakistani intelligence, but Olds keeps the information as an unexplored though haunting tidbit. Naqshbandi himself takes on the proportions of a tragic figure who was just starting to think about leaving his line of work. His video plea, though emotionally controlled, is heartbreaking.
Olds includes the Taliban’s own video showing the beheading, blacking out the central portion: It’s deeply disturbing, but vital to his damning view of the fruits of empty diplomacy.