The documentary E-Team, which premiered to critical raves at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, ends with a chilling afterword following the end credits: James Foley, who served as one of the film’s cameramen, disappeared in Syria after filming was completed.
Foley, a freelance photojournalist working for GlobalPost, was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012, and his whereabouts—as well as the culprits—were undetermined until August 19, when the terrorist group known as ISIS posted a video on YouTube of his beheading in an unidentified desert. The 40-year-old Foley, who’d previously been detained in a Libyan jail for 44 days by pro-Qaddafi forces back in 2011, was the first American citizen killed by ISIS.
Directed by Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and Katy Chevigny, E-Team follows the Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Team to the frontlines in war-torn areas like Libya and Syria to document the atrocities committed under the dictatorial reigns of the late Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. The job of the E-Team is to collect firsthand evidence of war crimes and present it to First World governments to incite positive action. And the documentary primarily centers on E-Team members Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang, an intrepid husband-and-wife duo, as well as E-Team founder Fred Abrahams and its arms expert, Peter Bouckaert. The action opens in Syria in early 2013, as Assad-sanctioned planes drop cluster bombs filled with scrap metal, leaving 200 civilians injured. “God, please cure the regime,” says a shell-shocked Syrian woman. “What have we done to deserve this? What is our crime?”
“Our main job is to come in there, cut through the fog of war, and establish what has happened,” said Solvang.
Back in January, I spoke to E-Team directors Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny, as well as subjects Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang about the gripping, vital documentary. Our discussion came just two days after the 2014 Syrian detainee report was released—31 pages that detailed allegations of systematic killing by the Assad regime, stating that 11,240 children aged 17 and younger were killed in Syria between March 2011 and August 2013. The report was accompanied by the images of 55,000 emaciated and/or mutilated corpses, courtesy of a Syrian military police photographer and defector who goes by the code name “Caesar.”
“We had three camera people on this film—myself, a woman named Rachel Beth Anderson, and a man named James Foley, who actually went missing on another project,” Kauffman told The Daily Beast. “He shot some footage for the film in Libya.”
The most poignant scenes in E-Team are the ones covering the horrors of Syria. In the film’s most suspenseful moment, Beth Anderson's Flip camera trails Neistat and Solvang as they travel by cover of night to the Turkey/Syria border, and then cross over into Syria by hopping a barbed wire fence and sprinting across a wide-open field. And later, after taking in the heartbreaking stories of displaced men, women, and children, you see Neistat tearing up as she stands over a mass grave.
“It’s a job that takes you to the front lines of history, and gives you a chance to influence it in a way that hopefully brings relief and justice to thousands of people,” said Neistat. “Yes, it does take a toll on you personally, but it’s a fair trade-off.”
According to the filmmakers and subjects, there were several close calls while recording the human-rights violations in Syria.
“There were many tense moments that didn’t make it into the film,” said Solvang. “I remember one in Latakia where a helicopter was dropping improvised barrel bombs—barrels stuffed with TNT—and the helicopter came back, so we ran down into the ground floor of an unfinished building and waited for the helicopter to drop the bomb. And one of the handlers told us to open our mouths, because otherwise your ear drums pop, so we were all sitting there with our mouths open waiting for this bomb to drop. It dropped—but didn’t explode.”
“With all the different factions in Syria, in terms of the rebels, there’s a terrorist component,” added Kauffman. “One time, they pulled us over and wanted the keys to the car. So, I took the keys out of the ignition and hid them under my passenger seat. That was the most nerve-wracking moment for me.”
In particular, the group was worried about ISIS—a relatively small extremist group whose power was already growing during the Syrian civil war.
“What we’ve seen in the last month or so is that some of the moderate opposition groups have started fighting ISIS, and people are drawing parallels to what was called the ‘Awakening movement’ in Iraq when some of the tribes and clans started fighting al Qaeda with encouragement and support from the U.S.,” said Solvang. “One of the biggest risks that we were facing—and increasingly since then—and something that James Foley probably ran into was one of these extremist opposition groups.”
E-Team, which won the Cinematography Award at Sundance for its courageous handheld footage, devotes a large amount of its screen time to the war-ravaged people of Syria, shedding light on the carnage inflicted by the Assad regime. And it is also a monument to the late James Foley, who dedicated his life to, like the E-Team, exposing the plight of Syrians under Assad.
“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” wrote Foley’s mother, Diane, following the news of his passing. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”