Screening of The Interpreters and talk-back with filmmaker Sofian Khan

By Manuela Stewart Sifuentes

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every corner of the world and nearly all—if not all—of our collective rituals. The tradition here at CITA is to have our holiday dinner in January. It’s a lovely event at a local restaurant in the Denver metro area that gives members an opportunity to meet or catch up, sometimes after not seeing each other in person since the previous holiday dinner! With the statewide restrictions on indoor dining making a holiday dinner of about 50 guests impossible, the CTA leadership came up with a great alternative: host a film screening followed by a Q&A with the director! Fortunately, CTA Secretary Robert Sette had the perfect film in mind!

The Interpreters is an Emmy-nominated documentary released in late 2019 that tells the story of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters that worked with the U.S. armed forces, risking their lives and those of their families to help U.S. soldiers. As the last of the U.S. forces leaves Iraq and Afghanistan, their lives come under further threat. Many applied for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to come to the United States, a process that should take no more than 9 months, but actually dragged on for years and years. In the film we get to know Khaled, from Iraq, as well as Malek and Mutjaba, both from Afghanistan.

The format for this event allowed all those who registered the opportunity to watch the film on our own time and then on January 28th we all logged onto Zoom for a chance to ask questions of director and co-producer Sofian Khan. Here’s some of what he shared with us:

CTA: What was the genesis of this project? Where did you find inspiration for it?

Sofian Khan: My co-producer had been working on a series focused on military stories and that is how we found out about Phillip Morris (Khaled), whose story is the main story told throughout the film, and Carl, the military veteran that helped him get to the States. We later met with many interpreters, about 4, that all had amazing service records, had served in combat situations, had gone into difficult situations, and we just couldn’t tell all their stories. But there are many incredible stories and in that sense the film is a bit deceptive because all three of the interpreters in the film are successful in coming to the United States. Most interpreters that helped U.S. forces are still stuck there and many are in hiding.

CTA: Did you have any difficulties in filming in the Middle East? How did you gain the trust of the interpreters?

SK: There were some difficulties. It was harder to get into Iraq as ISIS began to take over and there was a freeze on visas, particularly for journalists. At one point, one trip to Iraq had to be postponed because we couldn’t enter and so we waited some time in Kuwait. So, we spent more time in Afghanistan. My heritage is Pakistani (which I didn’t mention in Afghanistan) and my co-producer’s heritage is Argentinian and Bolivian, so our physical appearance, particularly once we let our beards grow, worked in our favor—at least in Kabul: with beards and dressed locally, we presented low profile and we used a small camera. But still, we contacted many interpreters but not all of them ended up meeting with us out of concern for their safety and feeling that it just wasn’t worth it.

CTA: It seems the success rate to get into this Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program is very small. Can you tell us more?

SK: Yes, it is. Rex Tillerson, who was head of the State Department for about a year during the Trump administration, he was quite supportive of the program, and initially the approval rate went up, but then they dropped significantly. And Tillerson didn’t last very long. Phillip Morris, who applied as soon as the program started was in a better position, while those who applied late have had their cases move very slow.

CTA: In the process of filming, did you find out how the interpreters had learned English?  

SK: It was very diverse. Malik had lived in Pakistan in the mid-90s and had watched a lot of movies. Mujtaba’s family, in Afghanistan, had always been very focused on education, they had gone the extra mile in securing English tutoring for him, even during Taliban times, so they were doing it in secret. Khaled’s father had been an interpreter and had worked with many Europeans, so he followed his father’s footsteps. It was so mind boggling to hear about their work, they often entered situations where things were aggressive. Sometimes the soldiers quickly escalated a situation, sometimes it was the other way around, so aside from trying to stay as faithful to the message, they also did a lot of de-escalation. Both ways.

CTA: You mention in the film 50,000 interpreters, that’s nearly an NFL football stadium! How many want to leave those countries?

SK: Anecdotally, I think the determining factor is whether you are under threat or you have cause to believe that you are under threat. It’s ironic that right now we are all wearing masks, but during the time those interpreters worked with U.S. forces they were not allowed to wear masks. This was a concern for the interpreters because they felt they could be identified. So, the biggest factor is if you believe to be under threat and unfortunately that places a big burden of proof on them.

CTA: Is the US now keeping track of those who do not survive?

SK: No, there is no record kept of those interpreters who have been killed. Some people have tried to tally that number, but we couldn’t get a verifiable number by the time film came out.

CTA: Having spent time with the interpreters, in your mind, what motivated them to do this work knowing that it put them and their families at risk? Are they disappointed in the US for not helping them sooner?

SK: We were always so curious about that and it would come up in interviews, it is the one question that kept coming up over and over: why did you do it? For Malik, he joined very young, he joined at a time when there was optimism, you know… the Taliban had run to the hills. People though it was the beginning of a new era. Those who joined later were much more aware of the danger, and for them it was probably and economic decision. Their pay was about $600/month, and that can go a long way in Afghanistan, during the war. Maybe it was a calculated risk, an opportunity to work for a few years, save money, buy a house. And then there were the true believers, I mean even late in the game, those who joined to help defeat the Taliban and build new country.

CTA: Is this film (and others from your studio, Capital K Pictures) available to the public?

SK: The film is available for rent or purchase on Vimeo and this is how we recommend you watch it, as you get to see the Director’s Cut, and it also helps us recover the cost of creating the film. PBS will periodically put it on their streaming service, and you can also find it on Amazon Prime.

CTA: There was mention of a nonprofit foundation helping interpreters, can you share that with us?

SK: So, the non-profit mentioned in the film is No One Left Behind but they have now become an advocacy-only organization. However, several chapters of that organization have continued to support refugees and Keeping Our Promise, in Rochester, is doing great work.

Manuela Stewart Sifuentes is a Spanish<>English translator and certified healthcare interpreter. She currently serves as Language Access Program Manager for the City of Boulder.