Human Rights Watch is an organization whose “simplistic” foundation is the support of civilians’ right to life and preservation from annihilation by warring political groups. That said, the individuals who work for HRW must move beyond polemic to sustain themselves; theirs is often a thankless and seemingly futile job. They may be vilified by the political dictatorships whose brutal actions they investigate. Certainly, the average global citizen remains in the dark about how HRW specifically operates, who they are, and what contributions they make bringing accountability to despotic perpetrators of atrocities. Thankfully, the film E-Team shines a light on the elusive HRW. For its amazing cinematic efforts and absorbing content, the film won the Brizzolara Family Foundation Award at the 22nd Hamptons International Film Festival (for a documentary film of conflict and resolution), and has picked up other awards at Sundance Film Festival and beyond
Directors Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman found an engaging way to enlighten global audiences about an arm of the HRW’s most crucial ground operation in their fine documentary about the emergency team which is a first responder sent in to investigate human rights violations alleged in a particular country. This film, which is at times intensely emotional and fraught with the immediacy of danger and the horrors of genocide, also has a deeply human side. It opens the door into aspects of the personal lives of the four E-Team members the film highlights. We see that on the one hand these workers are fearless investigators who risk death going into areas of conflict which are hotbeds for internecine violence (in the film Syria and post Qaddafi Libya). On the other hand, they are average people like us. Filmmakers document the extremes of their work including the frenzy and fearful anticipation in the battle zones. They also reveal the calmer moments of responders’ lives switching to segments of their home life or times when they relax. By doing this Chevigny and Kauffman show how the individuals on this team negotiate times of compression and decompression. How they mitigate scenes of death with life, struggle to be ordinary though they are also extraordinary, try to be real though their job takes them through the nightmares of bloodshed, grief and torment.
Gritty human reality is at the heart of the film. Directors reveal how Norwegian Ole Solvang, Russian Anna Neistat (married to Ole), Brooklyn-born Fred Abrahams, and Belgian Peter Bouckaert make it through the days juggling the potential horrors of a mission in a crumbling nation state with the serene quiet of downtime in a Parisian apartment or elsewhere. While on one hand we see Peter the professional categorizing ordnance that has been used to maul and kill, in another scene, we see a relaxed Peter able to appreciate an expanse of sea that most probably has some “serious fish.” The filmmakers juxtapose dark and light, conflict and quiet. This is intentional for it symbolizes the composition of life elements along an authentic continuum that we all must confront in our lives: the journey of the wheel and the woe, the meadow and the abyss.
It is to their credit that Chevigny and Kauffman also have taken a different approach in not making the film a grave political treatise or hyper blockbuster adventure, though there are moments of authentic tension and alarm. The cinematography is visceral. The audience hears the screaming sounds of planes flying overhead and the explosions; the audience notes the fear registering on civilians and workers’ faces. We experience the anxiety of watching Anna and Ole sneaking from Turkey into Syria at night (journalists have done this and have been caught by rebel groups, held hostage and killed), and ironically joking about it; Ole comments as they enter Syria that they are “safe” from being turned back. The irony is that they have moved into the “belly of the beast.” The directors have fine tuned various episodes always to reveal the human factor. We can see through the actions of these ordinary people how decency and equanimity in their best iterations can manifest. It is clear these individuals are focused and determined, stripped of polemic in their commitment to the notion that humans have a right to be alive and safe. They are there to help in ways that their unique skills allow them to. Theirs is an amazing life affirming job in the midst of death and destruction.
Though some may feel there is a great incongruity between the footage of destruction on the ground and a modest Paris apartment (Anna and Ole’s), and members’ joking around in other settings, the four individuals remain their same unassuming selves despite the vastly disparate situations. They have made caring for others and helping others in conflict zones an integral part of their lives as much as cooking dinner, relaxing, and being at home. All is a natural part of living. This is a crucial theme of the film that is easily missed. The workers’ commitment is to help others achieve what they have; their actions are not heroic, they are natural and humane. What is not natural is that people are killed for whatever the presumed justification and the bullying characterized by the killing is the brutal evidence of genocide. That women and children are killed (there are shots of both as victims of bombings and chemical weapons), is a tragedy. Any deprivation of life because of someone else’s political agenda or need for power is unacceptable to these workers who go into danger zones to ultimately stop the killings.
Individuals like Peter, Fred, Anna, and Ole are the last ones to see themselves or what they do as heroic. What they are more concerned about is that their work has efficacy, that they document carefully, that they collect the accurate evidence of atrocities. The film itself, becomes evidentiary when the filmmakers follow members and record the testimony of a man who has lost almost his entire family to bombings. The camera in cinema verite captures for all time the effects of genocide: the hollowed out look in his eyes, his desperate pain at the multiple deaths, his need for an answer to the haunting question, why?
When we consider that such cinematography was shot at risk to the film team and E-Team members being bombed, we realize that what is paramount is that they get the man’s testimony; that he give voice to this injustice. We have been brought into the immediacy of the shock and emotional devastation of his loss. We empathize. The scene is unforgettable. The directors have engaged us and we understand, it is for this man, it is for these people the E-Team confronts the possibility of their own death in the hope of getting the horror and suffering documented for global media networks to stop the atrocities.
Filmmakers unabashedly show the miniscule initial impact of the E-Team’s Syrian mission. We watch as Anna testifies about Syrian atrocities before Russian officials (Russia supported the Bashar al-Assad government). The officials scoff at her testimony and accuse her of being part of an American government conspiracy. Anna had hoped that the Russians would intervene and pressure the al Assad government. Filmmakers juxtapose these clips with those indicating E-Team impact when Fred’s work helped to get Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević extradited for war crimes. But there is only so much HRW can do. When E-Team reports are disseminated to the global media and the UN, the focus shifts from a human platform to a political one. Global leaders discuss the reports with the international community; action can slow to a crawl.
Kauffman and Cheveigny have pulled back the veil on how these individuals attempt to sift through the purposefulness of their work while living with purpose their own lives. We can appreciate their effort to ground themselves in the ordinary to cope with the trauma and death they encounter. This is a way to help recoup and move on to the next mission where they will see more of the same. All the while they must struggle to remain steadfast in their dedication when nothing happens to stop the atrocities… a week, a month or a year from their initial emergency reconnoiter. But the film’s emphasis on these workers’ commitment to humane principles of justice is a vital concept for us to be reminded of.
Whether we uphold workers’ rights to a fair wage by boycotting a favorite fast food restaurant that underpays its staff or become involved with human rights at some other level, such actions reinforce our own inner strength as we work to improve the lives of others. It is a message represented in the E-Team and one that can never be reinforced enough. This is so especially in our time when corporations would squeeze the human factor from our consciousness making us into consumer automatons only interested in our next purchase.
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