Never without my fixer: French documentary a shout-out to hidden colleagues

The local helpers known as fixers are vital for journalists working in countries where there is conflict and political instability. A documentary by a French reporter highlights the dedication of his contacts in Afghanistan, Mexico, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ukraine.

French reporter Charles Villa’s documentary “Fixers” is a tribute to those behind the scenes. Fixers are the “bridge” between the many actors in the field and journalists, providing anything from contacts, translation, transport, even, sometimes, accommodation.

Villa’s film is a fast-paced compilation of footage using telephone, camera and go-pro recordings along with extracts of news reports from his recent trips. In between, there are interviews with contacts on the ground in five different countries.

It is both a homage to those who risk their lives to help him, and a rare look behind the scenes, the “making-of” those reports taken for granted on every 24-hour news channel.

Exceptional circumstances

“Above all, a fixer is a colleague,” he explains to RFI, adding that although they are often fellow journalists, or translators, many are simply civilians.

“Often they want to denounce what is going on in their country,” he says.

He puts his heart into his work, asking after each of the fixers, developing close links with them, showing that journalism in the field isn’t all about cold, hard fact-finding missions. It’s also about people who are trying to make a living, or get by in exceptional circumstances.

The camera moves quickly, there is shouting and noise, gunfire, explosions, cries, vehicles.

Often, it’s hard to register what’s going on. There is always a sense of danger.

Exposure

Aref in Syria, Miguel in Mexico, Hussein in Afghanistan, Sasha in Ukraine and Sabiti in the Democratic Republic of Congo all speak frankly to camera about their work and how they ended up as fixers. Often, it has been about survival, sometimes it’s a choice.

Villa makes no secret that the fixers have been not only a lifeline in difficult situations but they have also become friends. In many case, they reveal the toll this work has taken on them and their families. They don't receive the same insurance or health cover as journalists, they risk everything, Villa says.

Why choose to bring the fixers out of the shadows now, when the exposure could lead them to greater danger in their home countries?

“There were many discussions about this, but most of the fixers wanted to show their faces in the documentary. It’s about taking a stand,” he says, adding that the added visibility could at best bring them protection from the outside.

Aref, who used to be an English teacher in Syria, was tempted to hide his identity in the documentary, but in the end he decided to go on the record with his face uncovered. In any case, the authorities already know his name, Villa says. If people want to find him, it’s not hard to do.

“In the case of Hussein, if his work had been more recognised he would’ve been helped more by his media,” Villa says, talking about his fixer in Afghanistan. Hussein was able to evacuate in extremis from Kabul in August 2021 when the Taliban took over, but only with help from Villa and his French contacts.

Taking a gamble

Sometimes fixers can’t be set up ahead of time, so they need to be found on the ground. Being able to speak the language is obviously an advantage, in Villa's case: French, English and Spanish.

But there’s no hard and fast rule. Much of this relies on instinct and experience. There has to be a feeling of mutual trust, and this is achieved through “human relations” he says, how you behave and speak to people. It can be a gamble.

“It really depends on the situation in the country at the time you’re going to go there, it depends on the people you are going to meet.”

In his ten years of reporting in conflict zones he has never had a bad experience with a fixer, but he has heard of stories of betrayal. He gives the example of journalists being ratted out to terrorist groups in Syria, a phenomenon he stresses is extremely rare.

Country in hell

Sasha is the only woman fixer in the documentary, even though Villa says many are working in the field, albeit less so in Africa and the Middle East.

She was working with a television station in Kyiv when the war broke out in February. A friend asked if she wanted to help foreign journalists and she accepted.

It’s not easy, as her facial expressions show, especially when accompanying Villa to Bucha where families were burying their dead in makeshift graves. She was not intending to get so involved but she can’t look back now.

“My country is in hell, this is my reality now,” she says.

Meeting warlords

Born in 1990, Charles Villa studied journalism and in particular documentary filmmaking. He is of the YouTube generation, at ease with social media, seeing its potential to attract younger audiences. His hand-held footage and accessible language suit an audience looking for something with a more personal, authentic touch.

This can be seen in the scenes in the South Kivu area of the DRC, where Sabiti takes Villa to meet children recruited by local militias to guard the illegal mining trade.

The warlord in charge receives the "white man" with reticence with a glint in his eye no person would want to see for too long. In any other setting, it could be taken as a joke, but it is far from that.

Villa then goes down into a mine, scarcely the width of his body, to meet the miners whose only meal consists of potatoes and virtually no water. He admits to being scared afterwards. The men laugh.

Sabiti smiles in his interview recalling this trip. He says the warlord now has him in his sights because he has perhaps revealed too much. He can’t go back to the same place now for fear of being attacked. But he doesn’t regret helping Villa.

“Without a fixer you can’t go anywhere,” he says, smiling.