Interpreters Wanted: Review. By Simon Thompson.
Robert Ham’s Interpreters Wanted is a sobering, poignant documentary about both the brave and overlooked sacrifice that Afghan interpreters made in helping the US army in the region, despite being aware of the great personal cost that would befall them if the Taliban ever caught them. The documentary isn’t so much about America’s conflict in Afghanistan but rather the lifelong friendship that Robert Ham formed with two Afghan brothers Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal whom Ham met and befriended when he volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, as well as their subsequent attempts to gain American visas to escape for themselves and their families.
Structurally the narrative of the documentary unfolds in a typical linear three act structure, with the timeline of events beginning in 2001 at the war’s start and then ending twenty years later at the point of the American withdrawal. Within that twenty year timeline we come both to understand Ham’s reasons for joining the US military and the motivations of Saifullah and Ismail to become interpreters, namely, to help rid their country of the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists, with the two brothers and thousands of others like them seeing foreign western military intervention as their only hope.
When a specific American foreign policy development is mentioned in the movie and it diverts away from ground level, Ham’s skill as a filmmaker is at its most prominent because he never allows the narrative focus to be dragged away from Ismail and Saifullah’s struggles in applying for visas to safety. Often when you hear about a conflict on the news or read about one there is a kind of dispassionate tendency to present in a dehumanising monolithic fashion, but its through a documentary such as this one that you truly realise the human cost and suffering of war.
To Ham’s credit he does a good job of portraying the bloody and controversial American intervention into Afghanistan in a relatively nuanced way. He describes going from being an idealistic and angry young man in his twenties who volunteered to fight because of his understandable reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to a man who comes to understand the Afghan people and their struggles through the close friendship he forms with the two interpreters making him realise his errors of viewing the world and foreign cultures in such a simplistic black and white way.
To conclude, Interpreters Wanted is a balanced, heartfelt testament to the sacrifices that brave Afghans made in interpreting Arabic for the US military, and while the documentary’s central thesis that friendship can be found in the most unlikeliest of places and situations Ham still has the courage to show how badly a lot of the Afghan interpreters seeking visas and asylum have been treated by a government foreign to them that they risked life and limb for in the hope that they may see their country free from the poisonous vice grip of religious fundamentalism.
While Ismail and Saifullah were lucky to be granted visas and asylum to the US, tens of thousands of others who made the same sacrifice that they did are still stuck in an Afghanistan now back under Taliban control, including Ismail and Saifullah’s own families- a brutal reminder by Robert Ham of the careless damage wrought by America on the region through their haphazard and careless withdrawal in 2021.
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