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This Is Our Chance to Support Afghan and Iraqi Interpreters

Published August 11, 2015

The clock is ticking for Farooq Haqmali. An Afghan interpreter who is promised a visa by the U.S. Government after the Taliban threatens to kill him...

So begins the based-on-reality story of Farooq, a fictional interpreter who represents the many thousands of real Afghani and Iraqi interpreters left behind when the U.S. and allied forces pulled out of both wars. 

You've see the news stories. It's hard not to be moved by the plight of our most vulnerable colleagues. Many of you have asked yourself, "but what can I do?" At InterpretAmerica, we have often asked ourselves the same question. Now we have an answer.

This is why InterpretAmerica is proud to announce today that we are partnering with Her Pictures, the USC Media Institute for Social Change and No One Left Behind to produce “The Interpreter” - a short narrative film that seeks to shed light on the plight of interpreters left behind by Western military forces after their withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. We are incredibly honored to present you our interview here with Robert Ham, the decorated combat videographer and two-time Emmy award winning director behind the project.

The catch? This film needs our help to get funded. For once, we have the concrete opportunity to contribute to a project that could help save colleagues' lives and raise awareness for our profession. All we have to do is contribute to the film's Kickstarter campaign.

The ultimate goal? A full-length Hollywood movie highlighting this critical issue. Take a moment to read this fascinating interview with Robert Ham, and then help him help some of the most vulernable, at-risk colleagues we have.

INTERPRETAMERICA: Where did the idea for “The Interpreter” come from?

ROBERT HAM: I approached producer/writer, Jenna Cavelle, and shared with her my experience with my interpreter in Afghanistan. I told her about how he was unable to get a promised visa, and was now being hunted by the Taliban, and that he was one of thousands. As Jenna heads research and development at the USC Media Institute for Social Change, she immediately conducted a full-scale literature and film review on the topic and was so moved by the plight of these interpreters that she offered to write the screenplay and produce the film. Jenna and I then took our project to Michael Taylor, the Executive Director at the USC Media Institute for Social Change, who also produced Bottle Rocket, Phenomenon, Instinct, and many other award-winning films.

Collectively, our team made the move to package our film and raise funding for a short proof of concept piece that also stands alone as a short advocacy film through Kickstarter with the intention of placing pressure on policy makers and voters, and so here we are! Our film is now a co-production between Jenna's production company, Her Pictures and the USC Media Institute for Social Change and we are forging ahead.

INTERPRETAMERICA: Can you share a story from your own time in Afghanistan when having a competent, trustworthy interpreter was critical?

ROBERT HAM: There were many situations I was in where a trustworthy interpreter was critical. If you understand what we were trying to do strategically in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency, then you understand that winning the hearts and minds of the local people and connecting them to the national government is impossible to do if you can't communicate with them. At every phase of the war in Afghanistan we needed interpreters. We needed them to communicate with the Afghan soldiers, with the Afghan locals, we needed them to talk with the politicians and the local leaders. There was no end to our necessity of a skilled interpreter. We slept next to, ate with, and fought alongside interpreters, and they became our brothers and sisters. They are some of the most honorable men I have ever worked alongside and they deserve our promised protection.

I always recall one event in particular when I learned just how valuable my interpreter was. Once, during a small town shura (town meeting) a miscommunication escalated. It looked as if there was going to be a serious issue between the Afghans and Americans (which obviously would not have turned out well for either party but particularly the Afghans). I'm not entirely sure what the interpreter said but I don't think it was word for word because that might have made things worse. The interpreter said what each party needed to hear to calm the situation, which could have easily become fatal for everyone. He probably saved some lives that day. That's only one example but I have several others where we made some major breakthroughs with the Afghan civilians because we were able to communicate to them through a skilled interpreter who believed in what we were doing.

INTERPRETAMERICA: What do you hope to accomplish by filming “The Interpreter”?

ROBERT HAM: We have several hopes with our film. First and foremost we want to get our film funded, surround ourselves with the best creative team for our budget and make an emotional and powerful short film that causes lasting and measurable change. From there, we hit film festivals and continue to bring awareness to the plight of Afghan/Iraqi interpreters working in conflict zones. Our long term goal is to use this short film to make a feature film that is currently being written by Jenna under the consultation of a highly-specialized development team consisting of the founders of No One Left Behind, InterpretAmerica, USC's Media Institute for Social Change, and select soldiers whose stories will be incorporated into our final screenplay. We also intend to affect lawmakers and change policy to help these interpreters get their visas to America in a timely manner.

INTERPRETAMERICA: Can you tell us a little about your production team?

ROBERT HAM: I will be directing the film. I am a two-time Emmy winning filmmaker and former Army combat documentarian. I have also earned 3 DOD Military Videographer of the Year awards during my service. I am now a freelance director and editor in Los Angeles finishing my MFA in Film at USC.

Michael Taylor, our executive producer, is an Emmy winning Producer who has produced several major motion pictures including Instinct, Phenomenon and Bottle Rocket. Michael is the Executive Director of USC's Media Institute for Social Change and was the chair of USC's acclaimed film school for a decade.

Jenna Cavelle our producer/writer is an award-winning Journalist, Activist and Filmmaker. Jenna is also finishing her MFA in Film at USC and has produced several award winning films with a focus on social change and marginalized communities. Jenna has worked with the State Department as a Critical Language Scholar in Indonesia, where she lived with an Islamic family and learned to speak Indonesian fluently while publishing her undergraduate thesis research at UC Berkeley. She has worked with interpreters and even as an interpreter in a predominantly Islamic country, so she gets it.

We also have a great team of cultural and military advisors with a long list of credits between them including American Sniper, Iron Man, and Rock the Kasbah.

INTERPRETAMERICA: “The Interpreter” is inspired by real events. How did you do your research for the film?

ROBERT HAM:The basis of the film is my relationship with my interpreter but Jenna and I did a lot of research from other interpreters’ experiences and harnessed those stories as well.

Jenna and I were also very moved by a Vice documentary on the subject and the John Oliver piece that came out last December. Much of our statistical information on the plight of interpreters came from that media and we continue to collaborate with No One Left Behind, a 501c3 nonprofit organization working on behalf of interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq, and InterpretAmerica to raise the profile of interpreters worldwide.

INTERPRETAMERICA: Why should interpreters—and the language enterprise in general—support your film?

ROBERT HAM: I truly believe film can change people's perspectives and can ultimately change the world. One of our team’s hopes for this film is to not only show the importance of this one interpreter but of the many interpreters in conflict zones whose fate hangs in the balance. The importance of interpreters can never be understated, we could not make any progress in any of our conflicts around the world without interpreters, period. They are literally our eyes and ears, and a promise is a promise.

INTERPRETAMERICA: How can individual interpreters and others do to support the film?

ROBERT HAM: They can support us by contributing to our Kickstarter campaign. Any amount helps. They can also tell their friends and colleagues about the project and invite them to support it as well. Our goal is to produce a high-quality film that will have a positive impact and draw attention to this important issue.

INTERPRETAMERICA: Last question, where will interpreters be able to see your film once it has been released?

ROBERT HAM: Kickstarter backers will have a password protected version available for web viewing. We will also enter the film festival circuit with the hopes of securing distribution and beginning serious discussions with investors for the feature film which is currently being developed and written. All of our partners, advocating on behalf of Interpreters, will also hold private screenings and continue to raise funds on behalf of interpreters trying to get their SIVs and transition to life in the U.S.

INTERPRETAMERICA: Thanks for your time, Robert. We are honored to partner with you and your team to tell this story.

ROBERT HAM: Thank you. We are grateful for your support and look forward with InterpretAmerica on this project.

Now we need your help. Please make a contribution to the Kickstarter campaign by clicking below. Then spread the word and encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same.


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