Filmmakers Andrés Caballero and Sofian Khan‘s previous feature-length collaboration Gaucho del Norte, which made its broadcast premiere on public television’s America ReFramed series, followed the journey of a Patagonian immigrant sheepherder recruited to work in the American West. With The Interpreters, the duo took a different journey to capture a riskier immigration experience, the story of how Afghan and Iraqi interpreters risked their lives aiding American troops–but then became the people we left behind. The film serves as a reminder of the responsibilities of war and just one aspect of how it affects people on the human level.
“We made this film to help raise awareness about interpreters and their families who have been left behind, forgotten, caught up in the bureaucracy of a dysfunctional immigration visa process,” the filmmakers told us. “We hope this film will re-examine an issue that has existed for many years, to draw attention to the plight of those who are still waiting to get to safety.”
We talked to them about the challenges of making this film while worrying about the safety of their subjects–and themselves–and how they became part of the lives of these stalwart men and their families, including how they passed as locals.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making The Interpreters?
Gaining the trust of interpreters who were under threat or in hiding was a challenge. We were introduced through other interpreters who had already made to the States, so this was our way in initially. But when we showed up in Kabul, where the security situation was going from bad to worse, we had to work to win their trust and communicate to our potential subjects the importance of telling their stories.
After that, in the post-production process, the challenge was interweaving the stories of three different interpreters in multiple locations, while maintaining clarity and allowing the viewer to follow their journeys.
Just to expand on what you said about challenges, did you ever actually feel in danger at any point while filming this? And if so what did you do to feel safer or protect yourselves?
Simply having to move around the city of Kabul we felt vulnerable. It was the type of place where everything seems to be okay and when you least expect it, something happens. The only time we had to stay behind a big wall was when a shooting broke out outside the Air Force base as we were coming out after filming.
Besides that, an IED went off just yards from the house of an interpreter where we would have been recording a sit-down interview were it not for a last-minute, audio quality-related decision that changed the location. These are the types of dangers you’re exposed to in a place like Kabul. We were “parachuting” in-and-out. Afghans have been living in this situation for more than three decades now.
Did making this film leave you feeling more or less hopeful for these people in particular, and humanity in general?
Making this film made us feel a little less hopeful in humanity despite having good outcomes like Phillip Morris’ and his family’s. The reality is that most interpreters are still out there, in hiding, being targeted and killed as they wait for their visas.
The past two years have been even more devastating to the Special Immigrant Visa process with intensified extreme vetting practices that have resulted in a significantly lower number of SIVs granted to Afghan or Iraqi interpreters.
With so much happening today, interpreters and their families are nowhere near the top of Americans’ priorities list, nor of the politicians. In the meantime, we still get more emails from interpreters who are stuck, who heard we were making a film, and thought to ask for help.
How were you able to get such intimate access given the constraints, to gain the trust of these interpreters and their families?
Spending time with them with the cameras off was important. Their exposure to Americans up to that point was mostly soldiers and other government personnel. We represented a different side of the U.S., as filmmakers and journalists who are also from immigrant backgrounds. So, really getting to know them and telling them about ourselves in the sharing process was crucial. It seems very basic but the camera can easily get in the way of this first human connection.
Andres is Argentinean/Bolivian, but grew up in the U.S. for more than half of his life. Sofian is a New Yorker, of Pakistani and British parentage. We are first and second-generation immigrants. We’re not sure that our background made it easier to gain trust with the interpreters in the film, but it may have helped with easing their concern that we would stand out while together in Kabul.
Both of us were able to pass as locals in Afghanistan, where you have a range of different ethnic groups and diverse faces, so long as we didn’t open our mouths. Sofian actually has Afghan ancestry through one of his great grandfathers, and Andres looks like he could be a member of the Tajik ethnic group.
So, when one of the interpreters asked us to rendezvous at a pre-determined location in the city, he kept driving past us because he was expecting us to be more obvious. But with our local clothes, he couldn’t pick us out from the crowd until he called our phone. After that, you could tell he felt a lot less nervous. Given the security situation in the country and the threats many interpreters have received from the Taliban and others, it’s understandable why he wouldn’t want to stick out in any way.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We would have liked to include several other protagonists we filmed within Afghanistan and at a refugee camp in Greece, and another interpreter who got asylum in Germany. In the end, there simply wasn’t room for all of these different experiences.
What’s one moment or image in particular that stays with or haunts you?
The collage of Phillip’s life in Iraq, made up mostly of cell phone videos that he shared with us, highlights the beauty of his city and gives an intimate glimpse of his home with his family. But it also shows us a place where he and his family are in danger. That sense of home as a refuge that he can no longer stay in is a tragedy that nearly all interpreters face.
Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share?
Yes. Malik, the Afghan interpreter now lives in California.
Mujtaba, who lost his family at sea, now made it to New York with his son, Bahram. He still hopes to one day find his wife and two other kids alive.
What about “Phillip Morris”‘s situation these days? And any other new updates you think the audience should know about?
Phillip Morris became a U.S. citizen a couple of months ago. He and his family moved into a new home they now own.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Mad Max. Motorcycle Diaries. Chameleon Street. Navajazo. Searching for Sugarman. Of Fathers and Sons
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
We are in the middle of developing a story about a citizen reporter in Laredo, Texas who almost has as many followers as the city’s largest newspaper. She drives through the streets of Laredo in the night looking for immigration raids, accidents, crimes, robberies and live-streams it to her more than 100,000 followers on Facebook.