September 28, 2023
Interpreters Wanted: USC Alumnus and Army Veteran Robert Ham Advocates for His Afghan Colleagues
By Desa Philadelphia
When Robert Ham ’17 joined the Army in 2007, and deployed to Afghanistan in early 2009, he thought he was off to fight the enemy, inspired by the call to arms that followed the 9/11 attacks. A fledgling filmmaker, he became a combat videographer, assigned to document his brigade of 3,500 airborne troopers. It wasn’t too long before he realized the Afghan people, characterized by the war machine as “the enemy” were really ordinary people caught between the repressive Taliban regime, and a hunger in the United States for “justice” for the World Trade Center attacks.
Ham’s insight into the lives of Afghans came courtesy of brothers Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal, educated Afghan men who worked for the U.S. forces as interpreters and were promised priority consideration for Special Immigrant Visas (called SIVs) for their service. The beginning of the relationship was tentative. “We’re all wary of Afghans, right? Who’s the enemy, who’s helping us? I didn’t really understand the geopolitics, anything when I went there, so I was wary of Saifullah,” says Ham. “But he had been serving there since 2004. He was a really kindhearted guy. I made a whole lot of videos and he would translate them into the local languages, Pashto and Dari.” From there the relationship grew as Saifullah helped Ham and his troopmates navigate Afghan culture.
In the documentary Interpreters Wanted, Ham tells the story of their work together, and his interventions to help the Haqmal brothers get out of Afghanistan when the promised SIVs failed to materialize in a timely manner. His introduction to Afghanistan’s people and culture is “the best thing I got out of the war,” says Ham. “War is so stupid on so many levels, so destructive and evil. I’m a white Christian from California who had engaged with very few Muslims in my life, let alone Afghan Muslims, and to now be able to say they are basically family is, to me, a very profound life experience.”
Ham applied to the School of Cinematic Arts right as he was getting out of the Army, encouraged by a friend to take advantage of the G.I. Bill with the advice: “You should just try to go for the best school you can get into. What is your dream school?” SCA was the only film school Ham applied to. He did his entrance interview dressed in his uniform, while on a mission in Malaysia. At 34 years old, with a wife and two kids, Ham was one of the older students in his cohort of the MFA Production program. “It was truly a bright spot in my life,” says Ham. “I literally transitioned out of the Army and within a month I was at SC.”
The idea for Interpreters Wanted grew out of Ham’s plan to make a scripted thesis film at SCA in 2016, inspired by his experiences with the Haqmal brothers. It was source material he had already drawn on, so he knew it could be successful. “The military was always there, so the first few films I made at USC were about the Army,” he says. He couldn’t raise enough money to get the thesis off the ground, but he kept developing the idea, encouraged by his work with USC MISC (Media Institute for Social Change), a group led by Production Division professor Michael Taylor that engages students and alumni in creating films with social change messages. As the project progressed, it became clear that the Haqmal brothers’ story was the one he should tell, and that it should be a documentary. “It just kept developing,” said Ham. “Our initial reason for making this film at that time was to help bring awareness to the Special Immigrant Visa that had not been given sufficient resources, and now we have finished the film and it’s still an ongoing issue.” The film is produced by Taylor, and Jenna Cavelle ‘16, another MISC alum.
Interpreters Wanted premiered at the Gig Harbor Film Festival outside Seattle, Washington, and will play at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis in October. Ham hopes it will bring awareness to the plight of Afghans who worked for the U.S. forces and still haven’t received safe passage out of the country. “One of the beautiful things about stories in general is they are supposed to connect us as humans, and what filmmaking can do is put the audience in the shoes of the other,” says Ham. “I want people to see Afghans as who they are, a wonderful, ancient people with a deep rich culture, with a passion for their version of freedom, not America’s version, but their version of freedom from the Taliban.”
He also hopes it helps efforts to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, the bill that would grant immigrant status to Afghan refugees like (spoiler alert) Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal, who have made it to the United States. It is currently stalled in Congress. “Hopefully this very micro story resonates on a much larger scale. Because now this isn’t a friendship/relationship/brother story, this is a political story,” says Ham. “Our policies and the way that we have engaged in our foreign policy as a country and the way that we have engaged in war impacts millions of people.”
He adds: “We have to start thinking a little deeper and also take responsibility for what we have done. We owe it to the people that helped us during that war.”