More than 50,000 local interpreters helped protect U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, enabling soldiers to communicate with the local population. But those who took the job were often considered traitors.
Phillip Morris, whose chain-smoking earned him the nickname, is a central character in the film. His warm, contagious laugh belies the dangerous work he undertook for four years. He served alongside Paul Braun, a lieutenant in the Minnesota National Guard who became his best friend. After coalition forces withdrew in 2011, Phillip and his family came under threat.
Back in Minneapolis, Paul works tirelessly to get Phillip to safety. In 2008, the U.S. created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to help interpreters like Philip get to safety. However, the process has been marred by long delays and backlogs. So far, only around 14,000 interpreters have received visas, counting for just a fraction of the tens of thousands who have been left behind. In addition, growing anti-refugee rhetoric has put the future of the SIV program in jeopardy.
Phillip is lucky enough to have an American soldier advocating on his behalf, and is finally able to make it to the U.S. in 2013. However, his family’s paperwork is delayed, and they’re forced to stay behind in Iraq amidst the rising threat of ISIS. While Phillip acclimates to life in America, he waits anxiously for his family to join him. And eventually he must go back to complete their paperwork, once again facing the threat of being a marked man in his country.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, many interpreters are living in hiding with their families while they wait for their visas to be processed. Malik, who is still an active interpreter with the Americans at the Air Force base in Kabul, has been waiting for his SIV for nearly four years. Somehow, he has the security clearance to continue working on the base alongside U.S. troops, while still being stuck in the security review stage of the visa process. Every trip back and forth between the bases is dangerous. Fearing for his life, Malik moves with his wife and two children from his father-in-law’s house to his sister’s house every other week.
Mujtaba is another Afghan interpreter who worked with the army and the DEA fighting drug traffickers. But the danger is too great. He decides he can’t wait any longer for the SIV to come. Mujtaba leaves with his family for Turkey. They attempt to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece with the help of smugglers, but a tragic accident sets him on a path he never imagined.
The stories of these three interpreters weave together over the course of two years, following them as they struggle for safety in the aftermath of war.