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Interview: Kim Barker Chats About Being a Female Journalist In Afghanistan

Jacqueline Gualtieri ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

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Kim Barker at the Premiere of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Emertainment Monthly got the opportunity to join a roundtable to interview Kim Barker, the woman behind the new film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Barker wrote her memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle” about her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a war correspondent. When the New York Times reviewed her work, one of the first things said was how similar the narrator and Tina Fey seemed, which as how Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, out March 4, got underway.

When Barker joined the roundtable at the Eliot Hotel, she quickly organized the group, having each reporter state their name and publication and allowed each one question.

Question: I was reading the review of the book in the New York Times in 2011 and it says in the first paragraph-

Kim Barker: Second paragraph. I know it by heart now.

Second paragraph. It says that you’re a very Tina Fey- type character and I was just wondering, does she have readers out there?

KB: No she’s an egomaniac who’s always googling herself. No I’m kidding. That’s a joke that she makes. No, No, I mean look, as soon as we saw that, me and my agent, it’s not like I have people, we sent her a book and the review. But I think that she does have people who pay attention to things and somebody I think flagged it for her on her team. So she got the book and she read it and, within two weeks of the review coming out and one week of the book coming out, she pushed Paramount to option it for her to star in it and produced it and she brought Lorne Michaels on board as well. She was the real driving force behind the entire project. Which was kind of crazy.

Former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker in Chicago [doing publicity for the movie "Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot" based on her book, "The Taliban Shuffle," on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS) 1181178

You were surprised?

KB: I mean I was surprised by the review. I mean think about it. I’m a print reporter who nearly had to leave journalism during the time of the journalism crisis and I decided it’s a smart idea to quit my job in 2009 as opposed to going back and being a metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I decided to quit and gamble on writing this  book. And all the time I was like I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get another job, you know? And knowing that that’s all I want to do with my life. It’s like I am a print journalist, all I want to do is write and report stories. So yeah, to write this book and have that be the review and have Tina Fey, it’s all very unreal. I’ve only been at the New York Times for a year and a half but it’s not like I talked about it. I was trying to figure out, because any time you start a new job you want to fit in. I don’t think a lot of people there knew it was going on. I didn’t necessarily know it was going to happen.

What was the most life-changing moment when you were over in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

KB: I get this one a lot. It’s kind of weird for me because this whole idea of personal growth through war, when really I went there to cover a story. And Afghans and Pakistanis, they have to live there now and they don’t really care about my personal growth. If I learned anything, I certainly learned how to be alone and that I can cover any story and do anything that I’m thrown into. I learned how to blend into other cultures. I like to tell this story, there was a family whose house had been partially destroyed by the earthquake in Kashmir and they invited us to stay with them for three days. I tried to give them some money to pay for the food but they just refused it. They said no, you’re guests. I think about if people in America would be so generous as to say, stay with us. That’s something I really try to remember: the hospitality I was given. I think it’s something everyone should remember and it’s actually what our country was kind of based on.

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Kim Barker.

Moving into the film itself and your positions of it, I suppose a few things were changed from your real life experiences to the film itself, relatively small things like taking a letter out of your name and putting another back in and even changing exactly where you were. How well do those changes sit with you? Were there any that kind of irked you a little bit or were you happy with how it was rendered on screen?

KB: I mean when Robert Carlock, the screenwriter, met with me the first time, he said, look we’re really excited about this but we’re going to have to make changes for Hollywood and I said, oh yeah, you’re going to leave out Pakistan and he goes, you okay with that? And I said, yeah, I totally get why you would do that. You can’t go back in forth in an hour and fifty minute movie between America, Afghanistan, Pakistan. You couldn’t keep all those characters straight. And I said, yeah, you’re probably going to make it a romantic relationship between me and Sean, the Martin Freeman character Ian McKelpie is based on. And he said, yeah, you okay with that? And I said, yeah, we’re totally fine with that. I did not know until a friend read the screenplay for me that I was a tv reporter. I get why they did that. I mean, it works really well in the movie, because you’re seeing the stories and it works sort of like exposition. I guess it’s not that interesting to watch me type. But you know, for print journalism, I get it but you feel a little bit of a pang. At least we had Spotlight this year. So yeah, those are the changes, but honestly, it feels like the core of the movie is the same as the core of the book. They used different things to tell the same story, which is, the idea of the life we led over there, the idea of being in this Kabubble. Going back and forth between covering these really, really horrible things, to the only sense of release you had. You couldn’t find ways to escape that were really healthy. You couldn’t go for a run or go to the gym. So yeah, we drank. I put myself in the middle of it because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, but it really showed what the west was doing there. There were bars and restaurants in Kabul, that Afghans couldn’t go to. I mean that’s crazy to me. So it’s just like this really weird, strange way to live and I think they captured that really well. And obviously I wanted the relationship between myself and Sean, my friend who was kidnapped by the Taliban, who can really take anything. Any portrayal of him he can take. But I wanted the relationship between my fixer and I, which is kind of the core of the Afghanistan part of the book, I wanted that to be treated with respect. I feel like it just was. There’s a lot of humanity in this film. I was so pleasantly surprised when I saw it. I mean you could imagine my terror, right? I mean this book is my baby and it’s great that it gets to have a second life, but the last thing I wanted was Anchorman in Afghanistan. I mean, I love Anchorman, great movie, but I don’t want to be Will Ferrell.

Well, your description of the troops in the book is just hilarious. I loved “Team America.” Billy Bob Thornton did a great job capturing that.

KB: Yeah, he did a great job. And it was funny watching the movie, because some of it’s improvised. But I was so happy they had serious stuff in there as well. You look at the trailers and it just seems like you’ll laugh every thirty seconds. And this movie has a lot of darkness in it. And it’s a war; it should have some darkness. The book has darkness. And to be honest, and I’m not just saying this because she’s playing a character based on me, I think it’s Tina Fey’s best role. She shows that she can do drama and comedy in the same movie.

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Kim Barker.

Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with your fixer and how you grew that?

KB: I mean, it’s funny. Farouq, who the character Fahim is based on, is in Canada right now. He got there for grad school about the same time I came back and we ended up getting his entire family there and they are in the process of becoming Canadian citizens. He’s got two daughters. I’m flying him in for the premiere and he’s flying into D.C. on Saturday for the party there. And he said to me, ‘can you fly me in a little bit later? I have to go to ski lessons’. And I just said, ‘Farouq, what if I told you seven years ago that you’d want to come in later to New York and D.C. because you were going to ski lessons?’. It’s kind of hilarious the way things ended up. The last time I went to visit them, I woke up at around 6:30 because they gave me one of their bedrooms. And I wake up and I feel, like, a presence on me. And I look to the left and there’s one of his daughters, who was three at the time, with glasses, and she’s got chocolate all over her face and she just goes, why are you sleeping so long? So yeah, we’re still friends and obviously we miss running around the country. I went up there to read him the parts of the book that had to do with him aloud because English is not his first language. I think it’s third and I wanted him to know exactly what it said. He doesn’t come across great all the time, just like I don’t come across great all the time. And I wanted to be able to show all those really human moments about how we both were like kind of jagged certain points and what it takes to cover this sort of stuff and how exhausted you get and how it can just wear you down. There were points when I was reading him things and he was like, oh my gosh, you knew that? Or he’d say, can we not use that? And I’d say no, that’s what I’m trying to do. I look bad here. You look bad here. We’re human beings and we’re flawed and I want to be able to show that. It’s super easy as a foreign correspondent to write a book where you look like the smartest person in the room, you know? It’s really easy looking back to act like you knew everything and maybe in your head you think that you did because you’re looking back and I didn’t want to do that book. I wanted to show the learning curve that I had. Also, I wanted to make something funny and when you’re making something funny, you have an option of making fun of yourself and being self-deprecating or making fun of everybody else. I felt like Afghans and Pakistanis have probably pretty much have had enough. I mean I make fun of Nawaz Sharif but he kind of deserves it. You know the people I call out kind of deserves it. But yeah, Farouq and I are still friends and we broke up at one point over there but not the same way. He always used medical terminology to try to educate me. He was big in sort of lectures. It’s funny because I was in Toronto the other night for a screening and I was able to invite two people. One of them used to run Human Rights for the U.N. in Afghanistan and the other was a fellow reporter at the Chicago Tribune who had been in Afghanistan and Pakistan and both of them had worked with Farouq. And they were both like, yeah, they totally got his lecturing style and how he was so protective of you. The one thing about the portrayal of Farouq is that Farouq is much more of a cut up in real life and sort of like a bit more inherently, out loud funny. Christopher Abbott’s portrayal is just a little bit more dry. I did love the scene where he’s laughing and just doesn’t translate for her. That would happen all the time. I love that running joke in the movie, how I would not know what was going on and I might find out like three days later what had been said. Everybody would be laughing and I would ask what’s going on. He’d be like, tell you later.

Emertainment Monthly: Were there any scenes or characters from the book that you wish had translated to the movie?

KB: I mean it would have been great to have Nawaz Sharif actually in the movie but he’s the prime minister of Pakistan. The Alfred Mollina character is sort of a composite between the A.G. of Pakistan, the actual A.G. who I did go shooting guns with, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The stuff with him in the movie, you just can’t make that stuff up. But I can’t really complain about anything that they did. I think they were as kind to the story as Hollywood could be. Obviously, if it would a ten-hour, one of those hour long serials or half-hour comedies on HBO, you’d be able to get a lot more of the nuance and a lot more of the stuff in. This is much more of a fish out of water story and about sort of going there, covering it, having personal growth, and coming back. And I appreciate the ambiguous end to it, but it goes back to the original reason I wrote the book. It’s not necessarily about me. I’m the water carrier. As a print journalist, you always have to have your doorway into this strange world and I’m like the water carrier. I try to treat myself as a character in the memoir. I printed out the entire book to highlight each character to make sure they were all balanced and all the stories would weave together and it would read really easy. But mainly I wanted people to learn about Afghanistan and Pakistan. I wanted people to get a primer on it and also about the work we do as print journalists, because I was so frustrated on coming back. Tina always says when people ask, what do you hope people will say coming out of the movie, that they’ll say, that was money well spent. My message is that I hope people will want to see what was real and what wasn’t. And maybe they’ll read the book, because it’s a pretty easy read. I can’t complain about anything that they did. Actually, except for the boyfriend cheating on me, which did not happen and I still have to tell him. I have to call him and say, oh by the way, you’re cheating on me, in front of everybody.

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Kim Barker.

His name is the only one not changed in the movie.

KB: That’s because it was made up in the book. There were several pseudonyms. Actually, it was funny. I was going to give Farouq a pseudonym but he was like, no, I’m Farouq. I gave people the option of having a different name. There were three pseudonyms I used in the book. One was for Chris, my boyfriend. If you read the stuff in the book, he had a bit of a break down so I feel protective of him. And then also, the driver in Pakistan had a name change because I was worried about someone coming after him. And then Dave is a boyfriend I had in Pakistan, but he was a bit abusive so I just gave a new name so I wouldn’t have to deal with him. They ran all the pseudonyms past me. I mean what would have happened if they changed Chris’s name and it became his real name? I mean it’s rare but it’s possible. I do really have to call him though. I’m hoping that he’ll see these interviews and he’ll realize what’s going on. If you all could do that for me. (Laughs) He’s happily married now, so he should be fine.

I was wondering, at what point in your experience did you start to feel more at home when you were overseas? How do you think that was portrayed on film?

KB: Well, you feel at home pretty quickly. I mean, to be honest, you go there and in the beginning, you’re like, wow, this is really different. This is really strange. But you have to remember things are condensed in the movie. I first went over there in January 2002 and I spent four months traveling between Afghanistan and Pakistan and then Sri Lanka. By the end of it, I was just trying to stay one step ahead of the metro desk. I was like maybe they won’t catch me. (Laughs) And maybe I can just go to the next country. I just wanted to stay. I was covering these sorts of tragedies I’d never seen before. For me, it’s always been about the story. If I can find a good story, and if I could tell that story in a compelling way so it makes sense to people back home, and makes these people seem like your neighbors, then I’m at home in that situation. By the end of that first four month trip, I could have stayed. It was all just about finding your feet and learning that you can do this. It’s all just really exciting as a journalist I think to be able to challenge yourself and put yourself in situations and see if you can do it. I think I’ve always had that sort of mentality. If I have a job that’s safe and a job that’s more challenging and scarier, I’m going to choose the job that’s more challenging and scarier. You talk to a lot of journalists who go to Afghanistan and they feel the same. You’ve got people who have been going there for as long as they can remember. There’s something about that country that you just fall in love with. It’s a beautiful country. The people are so hospitable and they have this amazing sense of humor. I talk in the book about, you know, Woody Allen says comedy is tragedy plus time. Over there, it’s like five minutes. They have a really dark sense of humor and are just so gracious. And the women there, I defy anybody to find stronger women than you find there. Given everything, you’ve got these women who are standing up to war lords. Every journalist who goes there falls in love with it in a way that journalists who went to Iraq did not. Or Pakistan for that matter.

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Related to women, was there a challenge to being a female journalist in a war zone?

KB: There are certain challenges to being a woman in a war zone, but really in Afghanistan, it’s like, we weren’t seen as Afghan women and we weren’t seen as foreign men. We were sort of like this third sex to we had access to all the women. They would pull me in, play with my hair, take my headscarf off, and tell me stories that they aren’t going to tell the male journalist. I would use female translators for those stories because they aren’t supposed to talk to strange men and they wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a man the reason they decided to throw acid on themselves instead of being forced to marry an eighty-year-old man. You had access to stories about the women that I think foreign men couldn’t get, plus you had this weird sort of access to the male leaders because I think they just sort of wanted to meet you. They were charmed with the idea of women running around the countryside. A lot of the top correspondents over there were women and there’s a reason for that. You were able to operate.

Going from column inches, to novel, to film, how do you think your relationship with the story changed?

KB: I don’t really know. I kind of hope that since they changed my name I can just go back to being anonymous Kim Barker, print reporter. I do hope people like the movie. And I hope it makes them read the book.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is now in theaters. Check out Emertainment Monthly’s review here.

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