Interpreters Wanted (2023) Film Review
Robert Ham’s harrowing documentary Interpreters Wanted is one of the best of its kind. The way Ham has framed his own story into a compelling narrative is natural, and almost inevitable. The film is exciting, heartbreaking, tense, and ultimately, hopeful. Because it doesn’t matter whether you believe in the power of ideology, human survival is inherent to past experience. Ham, a US former soldier, has stared at trauma in the face, but his humility allows him to understand that there’s always someone to help. The film doesn’t explore his personal demons, because they’ve become secondary to a far more important story, that of his fellow brothers, whose nightmare didn’t end when Ham’s did.
Like many other similar stories, Ham’s begins when he gets deployed to Afghanistan to fight in the war against terror. No war dynamics are unnecessarily extended in the documentary because it simply isn’t necessary. Ham jumps ahead to when brothers Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal became interpreters for the American forces. That was until he had to return, and the friendship he had formed with both, was suddenly cut short. As it usually happens with local interpreters, the Haqmal brothers were seen as essential aid to military forces and they were able to apply for a special kind of visa. That’s when the story of Interpreters Wanted really begins, as Ham starts a quest in helping his brothers and their families reach safety.
Interpreters Wanted is a heartwarming documentary feature that doesn’t leave out its inherent nexus with a horrific reality: the conflict is still active. The horrors of the Taliban organizations didn’t start in 2009 when Ham was deployed to Afghanistan. This goes back decades and the documentary expands on that with just the right amount of information to let the viewer understand the dangers of a scenario that most don’t even recognize as possible. In this regard, Ham does a fine job at documenting a backstory that gives dramatic strength to the ordeal of the Haqmals.
Just when you think everything’s going to be OK, when Saifullah arrives at the United States with his children, the documentary digs deeper into its very difficult subject. This isn’t the story of the Haqmals. It’s about what’s left over there, and how the world met another kind of terror when the Taliban raided Kabul and took the city in a matter of days. That footage of the plane departing the airport and thousands of people holding on the huge machine will never leave our minds. Interpreters Wanted reflects on this with a very compelling third act in which Ismail is brave enough to go back and do something about survivors. At that point, it’s no longer a film about interpreters, their roles, and how grateful the US can be to them. It’s about the capacity of survival in the face of terror, reflected on the lives of three brave men whose friendship is admirable, and let’s be honest, very cinematic.
Ham is a filmmaker, and he incorporates drama in the documentary feature. And that’s OK. It’s his way to tell the story. The editing process resulted in tension when the Haqmals had already reached safety, but Ham does whatever he can with his experiment of a film that looks more professional than other peer documentaries. Interpreters Wanted is hopeful because it tells a fulfilling story where the ending is happy. But it’s also revealing enough to let viewers know of an issue that should be addressed as soon as possible: There are thousands of innocent souls at peril, and administrative processes can’t depend on contacts. Ham and the Haqmal siblings were lucky, but karma played a great part as well. Those guys deserved peace, and that’s exactly what the film will let you feel.