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The Interpreters

By Ray Lobo | August 17, 2021

Immigration policy is both divisive and complex. However, you would think that when it comes to interpreters who risked their lives to help US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans, even the most ardently anti-immigrant, would be in favor of issuing fast-track visas for them. Considering that US troops are woefully unprepared culturally and linguistically when navigating through many complex societies, interpreters are essential for American success. Directors Andrés Caballero and Sofian Khan chronicle the plight of Afghani and Iraqi interpreters in their documentary The Interpreters.

Interpreters who help US troops face unimaginable danger. First, their fellow compatriots consider them traitors for aiding invading forces. Second, they face suspicion from the US troops they did aid. Third, they are thought to be conspirators with infidels and are executed by ISIS and other extremists. Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) are offered for individuals in exceptional danger.

On paper, processing should take about nine months. In reality, bureaucratic inefficiency can make the process drag for five years or more. Again, these are people whose lives are in danger. Some interpreters prefer not to wait years. They risk their lives and the lives of their family members to immigrate to other countries illegally. In the case of one interpreter featured in The Interpreters, such a calculated risk proved fatal.

“…chronicle[s] the plight of Afghani and Iraqi interpreters…”

The filmmakers do an effective job of presenting the human cost of war and immigration policy. In the case of a charismatic chain-smoking interpreter nicknamed “Phillip Morris,” we feel his anxieties, frustrations, and struggles. He is granted an American visa, but his family is not. The documentary traces his journey to the US while he waits years for his family’s paperwork to be resolved.

The Interpreters also takes us back to the Trump administration’s monomaniacal obsession with its Muslim Ban. Phillip is point-blank refused rental apartments because he is Muslim and doubts about the American Dream begin creeping into his psyche. The cost of war can be empirically measured in terms of body counts. But what about phenomena that are harder to quantify? How is one to estimate the level of responsibility that invaders owe those they invade? Since removing US ground troops from Iraq, the country’s stability has been dicey, to put it mildly. Since the Biden administration announced the pulling out of US troops, Afghanistan’s fate seems more dire than ever. We are reminded that while the burdens of wars fall both on the invaders and invaded, the burden of responsibility and doing right by the most vulnerable falls most heavily on the invaders.

With The Interpreters, directors Andrés Caballero and Sofian Khan do a magnificent job of reminding us that while many may feel the weight of the world upon our backs, that weight is a little heavier on the back of those who are immigrants and had to live through Trump’s Muslim Ban. It’s a sad but necessary watch.

The Interpreters (2018)

Directed: Andrés Caballero, Sofian Khan


Starring: Phillip Morris, Malik, Mujtaba, etc.

Movie score: 7/10

The Interpreters Image

"…presenting the human cost of war and immigration policy."

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