May 25, 2018
Telluride Mountainfilm Festival

How Two Filmmakers Risked Life & Limb to Tell the Forgotten Story of 'The Interpreters'

'The Interpreters' tells the tale of locals who helped the U.S. Military during the Iraq and Afghanistan and are now being hunted down by forces like ISIS and the Taliban.

Filmmakers Sofian Khan and Andrés Caballero first came across a former interpreter, who goes by the nickname Phillip Morris, in Minnesota. Sergeant Paul Braun worked with Morris during the Iraq war and set out to help Morris get a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to escape being a marked target in Iraq. The U.S. Government created the SIV specifically for interpreters like Philip Morris, but because of bureaucracy and growing anti-immigrant sentiment, the process that should legally take no more than 90 days often takes five to ten years. For many of the tens of thousands of interpreters waiting, that translates into a death sentence.

To tell the story of The Interpreters without risking their already tenuous security was a delicate dance. "It was like making a cold call to some interpreter in Kabul, who doesn't leave his house, and saying, 'Hey. We are documentary filmmakers,'" said Caballero to No Film School. "These guys are in a specific state of mind, rightly so. One of the characters that we first approached thought that we were Taliban trying to plot something to kill him." On the eve of their World Premiere at Telluride Mountainfilm Festival this Memorial Day Weekend, Caballero and Khan sat down with No Film School to talk about how to film in an unpredictable place, how to follow a story long-term, and why you should never give up on the tale you want to tell. 

NFS: What are some of the skills that you felt you needed to embark on this kind of on-the-ground filming? And what was your strategy with the shoots?

Andrés Caballero: We had to be low key. We knew that things had changed in Kabul, as far as security, very fast since 2012, 2013, when most of the troops started withdrawing. So we just had a little camera, a small Sony that Sof was using. And most of the filming we did was from moving cars. It had to be really discreet. At times, we were able to go on top of a hill with our driver and a translator. They were helping us out a lot, and keeping us safe. A lot of the movement was, get from Point A to Point B. You kind of know where you're going. A lot of the rest of the time you spend indoors. Because it was tricky moving around. The fact that we blended in also helped. We just didn't open our mouths! And everything quick, you know? It's not like we had too much time. If we wanted, let's say, this B-roll shot from on top of the hill, most of the time we had to move fast, without attracting attention.

Sofian Khan: We didn't have much time to set up tripods, so it was all monopod action. Luckily all these cameras have awesome stabilizers now, so you can't really tell. Besides the security situation, there's also just the challenge of working in a country where the bureaucracy can be difficult. There were definitely some access issues. Like we were trying to film on a U.S. military base. And the U.S. side moved pretty quickly, but you had to also deal with a local government. We had to make sure we were there long enough, in-country, to be able to deal with some of those bureaucracies. Those bureaucratic things, you can never really do ahead of time. Even one of the Afghan army colonels, I forget what his rank was...

Caballero:  We actually did a fake interview with him.

Khan: We had no intention of using it, because it didn’t have any place in the film. But we interviewed him so he felt important. And we kept looking at each other. We were like, "We didn't even set up a microphone…”

"It was pretty guerrilla on this production. Really the two of us, and a sound recorder." 

NFS: And it worked! Can you paint us a picture of what the logistics of your production in this environment? You mentioned the importance of the monopod. Was it just the two of you? How did you record sound, when you weren’t fake interviewing colonels?

Khan: It was pretty guerrilla on this production. Really the two of us, and a sound recorder. Andres was running sound, or we were just running the camera. The Sony FS100 was the main camera, mostly just with the kit lens. We upgraded lenses to some better primes over time. Our ambition was to make a really bare take, kind of fly-on-the-wall film. I think it's got a little bit more interviews, just to drive the story, but we wanted to be there with these people, at those key moments. So it was just a matter of flying pretty light overall.

Caballero: And then over there, we hired a private security company that knew what we were doing, where we were going, from Point A to Point B, providing any support we needed. There were former British Marines running this bunker sort of place, with a lot of security, but also somewhat low key. They had everything set up, like escape tunnels to the UN compound, and a safe room, and all these things. You know, logistical stuff that.

We had been there before, once, and then also to other wars. So while we weren't very experienced in doing that kind of work in these places, we felt somewhat okay. It wasn't the first time we were in that kind of environment, basically. Kabul is so different from other countries that I had seen because there, it's hard to predict. There's something about it that makes it hard to predict danger. And everything seems so chaotic. Or just suddenly, something happens. And that's pretty much Kabul. So regardless of how many times you've been there, or how you're experienced, you end up at the mercy of luck.  

One of the interpreters, demonstrating how he got the nickname 'Phillip Morris' in this still from 'The Interpreters' by Andrés Caballero and Sofian Khan.Credit: The Interpreters

Caballero: One of the guys we were interviewing, an interpreter had suggested to do the interview at his house. Or us actually, we wanted to do the interview. He agreed. Snd then he told us, hours before heading to his house, that he shared a house with four other families. So immediately that was, for us, like, "No way. Sound. It's not going to work." So we switched it to have him be cleared to come to our place.

And in the middle of the interview, the character gets a phone call from his wife that a bomb had just gone off meters from their house, where we were going to be doing the interviewing. The windows in their house got blown out. Someone put an IED in the bottom of a pool, and injured a few people. These are the things that just gave us a little glimpse of, you know, what could happen at any time. Doesn't matter where you go, or how prepared you are.

Khan: Yeah, that definitely wouldn't have worked for the sound.

"He filmed with the little cameras, and in the end, used his cell phone more than anything. And that's what you see, that material, interwoven throughout the story." 

NFS: What was your strategy in following a character over a long time, like ‘Phillip Morris’ not knowing exactly where the story would go, and having the story take place at times in the U.S. and then long-distance?

Caballero: The thing with Phillip Morris was, he was about to leave for Iraq when we made contact with him. We had one shoot with him [in the U.S.] before he returned to Iraq to get his family. So that was a challenge. Okay, we get one shoot, we can build up to this departure. Somehow we've got to get all the stuff that happened before, and somehow we have to follow everything that's coming with his storyline and resolution after. Will his family make it to the U.S. with him? Will he be alive after trying to get back to Basra where his family is? He had to travel to areas that were controlled by ISIS, so there was a lot of uncertainty.

We ended up giving Phillip Morris two small cameras. They were kind of the size of thumb drives, and they had no playback capability. We were hoping that, for his safety, he could use them to film as much as possible on his journey. We thought at least we would have those elements, visually, to work with. At least we're capturing something as these things develop that we obviously have no access to. Because even if we wanted to go to Iraq, we would probably be a liability for his safety in that kind of journey. So it was all about him filming. And he ended up doing so. He filmed with the little cameras, and in the end, used his cell phone more than anything. And that's what you see, that material, interwoven throughout the story. It ended up becoming everything you see in Iraq, in his time. That vertical cell phone footage. But that's how we started.

Once he returned to the U.S., we had funding, so we were able to make multiple trips to Minnesota, and capture that whole other experience, which was, he is there, he's waiting for his family. But he still has to work, and the whole fairytale stage of the migrant who arrives to safety is already over. He's hit a wall. He's miserable without his family. All he does is work. Our job was to capture those states of mind that he was going through, as much as we could. That became easier since we were in New York. It wasn't too far.

Here, Phillip Morris stands next to Paul Braun, a sergeant trying tirelessly to get his former interpreter and best friend to safety in the United States. Credit: The Interpreters

Khan: it was pretty clear that Phillip Morris's story was unfolding in a certain way. It was maybe taking quite a bit of time, but he was such a great character that people would want to know what's going on with him, and follow him in his journey. I think the challenge on the flip side was filming with a lot of other interpreters outside the country, because we didn't really know how their stories would evolve. So we needed to have that state of mind, of filming. There were some really great other stories that hopefully we could use somehow as short stories, but just didn't fit into the feature film. That was something we had to do, to make sure that there was a story that worked, looking from the outside.

NFS: The film is premiering at Telluride Mountainfilm Festival on Memorial Day weekend. What do you hope that people will talk about after seeing the film?

Khan: I think it would be wonderful if, with a Memorial Day kind of tie-in, that the message we could send is, "Of course we want to remember all of our veterans, and those who died in the wars, but we also want people to remember all these interpreters, and all these other people who are allies, who also died fighting for an American cause." That's a message that we're trying to push forward.

"This is not about whether or not these wars were legitimate, or the politics of it...It's about a human condition."

Caballero: I feel the same way as what Sof just articulated. It shouldn't have been such a grueling process for these guys. It's certainly not beyond the legal boundaries, or the way that this program [Special Immigrant Visas] was designed. So really, they've been forgotten. The opportunity to have this film on a platform, where it can reach people, and especially veteran communities is important. We want this to get out there and make them wonder, you know, "Where are the interpreters that we worked with? And how can we help push for them to get safety?" And we want it to be in front of all sorts of audiences on the political spectrum.

People can easily get caught up in wanting more about the war, both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and critiquing specific things. We want everybody to know that this is not about whether or not these wars were legitimate, or the politics of it, even though it's highly political. It's about a human condition. It's about the aftermath of these two tragic wars, with tragic results, and about this group of people and about that moral responsibility. We want people who finish watching this film not to have a sweet taste in their mouths. We want them to feel that foul taste, wrapping up in a darker way, so that people get up and leave the cinema with that taste in their mouths, that this is not resolved yet. There's a lot more work to do.

An interpreter from Afghanistan who must undertake dangerous methods with tragic results in this still from 'The Interpreters' by Andrés Caballero and Sofian Khan.Credit: The Interpreters
NFS: Having made this film, having risked your lives, and sought out these people who are risking theirs as well, what is your advice for other filmmakers, based on what you've learned making this film?

Caballero: Try to stick to the story from the beginning. If you really believe that it's important, and you have that gut feeling that you should be covering things, even before this funding comes in, though it's almost impossible at times because of money, just push for that. Don't miss anything, and just stick to the story. And these grant funders and all these people out there will recognize that, the importance of the story, if you just stick to it long enough and keep applying. Don't stop rolling. Don't stop capturing scenes, just because you're discouraged that doors are closing.

Khan: On that same point, figure out how to be really self-contained, so that you can start telling a story without outside support. It's almost like envisioning yourself, a little bit, as a production company. When you have this ability to at least instigate the production side of things, you have something to show. You can put that clip together. And then as you get more funding, more support, you build your team.      

Header image still from 'The Interpreters' directed by Sofian Khan and Andres Caballero. 

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