In Focus: Ian Olds on The Fixer

Filmmaker Ian Olds

Filmmaker Ian Olds


SFFS/KRF Filmmaking Grant Winner; $25,000 for packaging, Fall 2013.

SFFS/Hearst Screenwrting Grant Winner; $15,000 for screenwriting, 2011.

What was the inspiration for this story?

The germ for this film emerged from tragedy while I was making a documentary in Afghanistan. I had become fascinated with the dynamic between western journalists and their local guides—known as “fixers”—while filming Occupation: Dreamland in Iraq. I travelled to Afghanistan to follow this interest, planning to make a new documentary about the mechanics of war reporting by focusing on the relationship between an American journalist and his Afghan fixer—a man named Ajmal Naqshbandi.

In a devastating turn of events, Ajmal was kidnapped and murdered while I was back in the U.S. raising money to return to Afghanistan to finish production. After first planning to abandon the film in the wake of this tragedy, I eventually returned to Afghanistan in an attempt to grapple with Ajmal’s death and honor a man who had become both our colleague and our friend.

In the process of finishing that film for HBO (Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi) I became involved in the asylum process for another Afghan fixer. Unlike Ajmal, this friend made it safely out of Afghanistan to asylum in the West where he was facing a very different kind of struggle. After jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops and finally being officially welcomed to his new home, he found himself facing a quieter, existential crisis. He was a man seeking purpose in exile.

Thinking about that moment became the genesis for this film. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was still much to tell about this hidden class of Afghan journalists and I knew I needed to grapple with the story in a different form. I mean this both in terms of the shift from documentary back to fiction as well as a shift away from the pervasive instinct to see all Afghan stories through the lens of war trauma.

The trauma of war is real, but after thinking about my own experience and talking with several Afghan friends, I kept coming back to one idea. To repeatedly tell the stories of Afghans through the lens of war and its trauma is too reductive; it cheapens humanity and denies the fullness of living. “I hate being pitied.” This was a refrain I heard over and over again from my Afghan friends. Where is the humor? Where is the sexuality? Where is the conflicted inner life? Where is the subtle pain of daily living? For in truth, these are all alive and well, even in the midst of unending war.

This understanding became our starting point and ultimately led us to our story of an Afghan fixer in Northern California.


What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?

This is not a very imaginative answer, but I still think the biggest challenge is funding. Great work requires great risk and finding financial backers to take those risks with you is always a serious challenge.


What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?

The new opportunities that have recently developed for me have actually come from good old-fashioned relationships built over time. The work I've done over the past ten or so years and the people I’ve worked with have slowly opened doors for me and given me the chance to make work on a larger scale. For me personally, there haven't been any new technological developments or anything like that that have had as profound an impact on my process as simply collaborating with people over time and slowly building a body of meaningful work.


Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society support has had on your film.

I can honestly say that San Francisco Film Society support has been absolutely integral to the development of our project. We first received an SFFS / Hearst Screenwriting Grant which gave us the opportunity to develop and refine the script. The quality of the resulting script allowed us to attach the first key actors and get us to the point where we have a start date for principal photography in 2014. Now the SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant for packaging is facilitating our move to the Bay Area and allowing us to focus full time on bringing together all the pieces of our ambitious project. As independent filmmakers always struggling with that balance of making a living and making work, San Francisco Film Society has been a key partner, giving us the time and resources to take our project from the conceptual stage all the way to production.

The Spring 2014 SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant round is currently open to apply!

The Film Society has established an excellent track record of success with the 37 projects previously funded by SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grants, with supported films winning top honors at the world’s premier festivals, garnering critical and popular acclaim and capturing the imaginations of audiences worldwide. As the grant program continues to grow, more and more exceptional independent features will join the distinguished company of such films as Short Term 12, Destin Cretton’s sophomore feature which won both the Narrative Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at South by Southwest 2013; Ryan Coogler’s debut feature Fruitvale Station, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the narrative category at Sundance 2013 and is an Oscar hopeful in multiple categories; and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s debut phenomenon which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and Cannes’ Camera d’Or in 2012 and earned four Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture).