The Secret lives of fixers in Russia
They may not get any credit for the final product, but good fixers are integral to television, film, and journalism produced abroad. WorldFixer.com is trying to make the best ones easier to find.
Say you're filming a reality television show and need 300 Russian soldiers for a scene. Tomorrow. Or you're a documentary maker and want a sit-down with the president of a South American country where the shit just hit the fan. Or you're headed to film a movie in Iran and need everything in order. Where do you start?
You need a fixer.
Is television, film, or journalism abroad even possible without one?
"If you speak the local language you could do the job", says Lisa Dupenois, a producer who works on shows like Globe Trekker. "It might take twice, three times as long. It might be a hell of a lot more difficult both before and on the ground. If it's a fairly simple project, it's possible. But I’d never recommend that unless there's literally no budget. They just make your life so much easier. They know the people to contact, they have good working relationships with them. They speak the local language.
"I HATE THIS WORD FIXER BECAUSE IT CONSISTS OF ONLY FIVE LETTERS," SAYS STANISLAV "STAS" SOLOVKIN. "THE JOB WE ARE DOING, THE TITLE SHOULD CONSIST OF AT LEAST 100 LETTERS."
Behind almost everything filmed overseas, there's a fixer paving the way. It's a small word for someone who does so much.
"I hate this word fixer because it consists of only five letters,” says Stanislav "Stas" Solovkin, a fixer in Russia. "The job we are doing, the title should consist of at least 100 letters."
A fixer is a one-man or one-woman orchestra producer, magician, ambassador, and procurer of permits for even the most impossible-to-access places—it took half a year to get a Kremlin permit, Solovkin says. He or she is also a translator, a guide, a travel coordinator, a diplomat between the producers and local officials, and money watcher, keeping the crew on budget.
Steering crews clear of cultural taboos is part of a day's work too. Farzad Pak, a fixer in Iran, warns camera guys off their normal attire. "It's not a nice thing to go in shorts on the street," he says.
The thing is, though, there is no typical day's work. A fixer might be scouring Moscow at two a.m. for women's clothing for a "huge man," as Solovkin did (finding it at a sex shop), or navigating a 750-meter deep "dreadful hole" slicked with contaminated mud in order to get a travel show host into a silver mine, as Argentina-based fixer Gloria Beretervide did in Bolivia.
"I could have gone to the mines and filmed something very standard that the tourists see," says Dupenois, who produced the program. "That's not what I wanted. With Gloria, we actually got into an officially working mine, got to actually work alongside miners, and that would never have happened."
Everywhere you see a show's host or cast go, you can be certain the fixer is just out of the frame-climbing mountains, crossing rivers on horseback, sleeping on trains, interviewing criminals.
Who are fixers, anyway? And what leads them to this unusual livelihood? A fixer might be a local journalist, a tour guide, an anthropologist, a filmmaker in his or her own right, or none of the above, says Mike Garrod, a filmmaker who recently launched the website WorldFixer.com. This platform connects excellent fixers like Solovkin, Pak, and Beretervide with the people who need them.
"THERE'S NO 'MOM, I WANT TO BE A FIXER.' IT'S A PROFESSION THAT CHOOSES YOU."
"It's not a profession you really pick," says Solovkin, who has a degree in journalism from Moscow University and was once the executive producer of the Russian version of Survivor. "There's no 'Mom, I want to be a fixer.' It's a profession that chooses you." Returning to Russia in 1994 after living with a family in the United States, he found that language was the key to landing work in journalism. "I had nothing, no degree, no experience," he says. "I had a friend of friend of a friend who was an anchor for a five minutes weekly show, I applied, and was hired. The only reason was the language."
But fixing is not just about language. "It's about making two different sides of the project understand each other, and, more importantly, trust each other," Solovkin says.
The job isn't easy to explain - even to close relatives. "My family doesn't know exactly what I'm doing," Solovkin says. "They know I'm in television. But when I explain they are convinced I'm a fraud or something."
Not everyone sets out to become a fixer. Pak is an executive producer in his own right and doesn't necessarily use the word to describe the work he does with production companies filming in Iran. But for many, once they find this calling, there's nothing they'd rather do. "I didn't know I was a fixer 'til years later, in 1992,” says Beretervide, who began her career as a journalist and researcher. "I started with a wonderful director for a social documentary. As I read anthropology in college, it was perfect for me, I fell in love and quit everything else."
Beretervide's aim extends far beyond ensuring border-crossing papers are in order (a nightmare traveling with crew: "there's always a problem") and making sure the right person on the crew has the comfortable hotel suite. "A fixer must have total knowledge and comprehension of all political processes in the region," she says, "and a good historical and geographical background in order to enrich the story. We are explaining unknown things to a different hemisphere audience." Often a passion would drive fixers to do this job whether or not they're paid. Pak loves nothing more than the chance to show the world his country—the beauty and diversity of a place he says most people think is the same as Iraq. And Solovkin simply can't stop. "I would compare it to drugs, it gives you such an addiction," he says. "Every single day, every single hour, every single minute when you work, you have to learn something new and you have to invent something. It gives you a lot of adrenalin. This is the best thing I love about it. Every single moment you know something new about your own country, yourself, the people."
Despite the rewards, a fixer's life comes with peril. At the extreme end, for those working in hostile environments, the job comes with the risk of imprisonment, even death. But many consider the biggest risk the loss of reputation - which is to say the loss of livelihood.
"A FIXER MUST HAVE TOTAL KNOWLEDGE AND COMPREHENSION OF ALL POLITICAL PROCESSES IN THE REGION, AND A GOOD HISTORICAL AND GEOGRAPHICAL BACKGROUND IN ORDER TO ENRICH THE STORY."
The greatest commandment for fixers is to tell the truth. In a world where good reputations open doors, that's "the most precious thing a fixer has, "Solovkin says. Producers trust fixers with "money, lives - and their reputation too. You can build up your reputation for decades, and screw up one thing - it's over in two minutes. In TV everyone knows everyone."
Just how do fixers get officials to unlock the doors they need? "I'm not supposed to tell because that's what I'm paid for but I will," Solovkin says. "It's very, very simple. The key word here is to explain. Explain it will take this amount of time. Explain why [the filming needs to take place], promise you will never be put in a bad light. You've got to let them know you're not the enemy. It's just television. It's about talking to people with a smile. I managed to get impossible permits. We had the Amazing Race in the biggest library in Moscow. I did it not because I'm unique, but I know how to smile, I know how to explain what we need, and I never lie to people."
Until recently, finding the right fixer was a matter of word of mouth.
"You know somebody who knows somebody or use social media,” Garrod explains. "That served the industry well, but the bottom line is there's no choice involved in that. You're getting one person's opinion.” WorldFixer allows searchers like journalists and producers to find several people in a given area, narrow down by skills or languages, and see verifications from past employers. Since so many fixers are uncredited for their work and often sign non-disclosure agreements, this is a significant step for both parties.
"You know somebody who knows somebody or use social media," Garrod explains. "That served the industry well, but the bottom line is there's no choice involved in that. You're getting one person's opinion." WorldFixer allows searchers like journalists and producers to find several people in a given area, narrow down by skills or languages, and see verifications from past employers. Since so many fixers are uncredited for their work and often sign non-disclosure agreements, this is a significant step for both parties.
The site also serves as a form of protection for fixers. "Fixers have a lot of things to share," Solovkin says. "They need to communicate because there's some clients which are not so honest."
"They work bloody hard," Dupenois, the television producer, says, "and the thing I think they have trouble with - smaller production companies do sometimes pay them quite late. It's difficult for fixers, it is literally their lives' work, and they do work so hard for us."
Looking ahead, "hopefully in 10 years the community being built now will become a trade union with a guild. Can you imagine the international fixers strike?" Solovkin asks. He hopes for better recognition in the industry as well. "I wish there was a nomination for best international fixer."