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Interview with Ross and Katy to their powerful documentary 'E-Team.'

Interview: Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny, Directors of the Award-Winning ‘E-TEAM’

Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman directors of 'E-Team.'
Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman directors of ‘E-Team.’ Photo courtesy of Vimeo website featuring Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman.

E-Team is Ross Kauffman’s and Katy Chevigny’s latest endeavor. Both have a history of incredible film making to be proud of. E-Team is one more documentary to add to their list. It is an amazing film about the emergency team of Human Rights Watch who are the first responders sent in to investigate and document human rights violations anywhere in the world. After gathering the evidence, they then file reports and present them to the mass media, the UN and on a global stage in the hope of mitigating the brutality visited on innocent victims caught in the crossfire of warring political factions in failed nation states. I sat down with Ross and Katy to discuss the making of their powerful documentary and was heartily entertained and enlightened by these talented and inspiring directors.

Tell me a little bit about the awards which you’ve won thus far for E-Team. 

Katy: Well, last weekend we won a couple more. It started with the Sundance Film Festival where we won awards for Best cinematography and Best Documentary. The credit goes to Ross Kauffman and Rachel Beth Anderson and Jim Foley. We all had a lot of conversations about the aesthetic sensibility and the approach to documentaries which are cinema. Documentaries need to look like movies. They can’t just look like random shots with a camera. That was one of our rules for the film.

Ross: Is this print? (I assure him it is.) Or Radio? Just making sure, and please make me seem smarter than I am. (I laugh because both Ross and Katy are brilliant. Take a look at their film resume and you get the picture.)

Ross Kauffman, co-director of 'E-Team.'
Ross Kauffman, co-director of ‘E-Team.’ Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Katy: Ross will fill in the gaps because I’m forgetting.

Ross: Mountain Film Festival

Where is that?

Ross: That’s in Telluride, which is actually really gratifying because it is high school students who choose the film and I think that’s so wonderful.

Katy:  The film is very inspiring to young people and very exciting to young people. Then last weekend we won the Best Film at the Carmel Film Festival and also at the New Hampshire Film Festival.

Ross: the Hamptons Film Festival…

Katy: I’m forgetting, we won the Hamptons Film Festival Award, the 2014 Brizzolara Family Foundation Award for Best Film in the category Films of Conflict and Resolution.

Ross: Last weekend was pretty special because we also met with the Foley family. They saw the film and then we presented them with the cinematography award we had made especially for Jim Foley. We presented them with the award after the screening on Sunday.

For my followers, tell us about your work with Jim Foley. (James Foley was a freelance journalist and videographer who was kidnapped in 2012 in Syria covering the Syrian Civil War. He was brutally tortured and eventually beheaded by ISIS in a heinous murder in August 2014. He was the first American citizen to be killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.)

James Foley, did additional cinematography on the 'E-Team' in Libya. Family photo from the "Find James Foley" FB page.
James Foley did additional cinematography on the ‘E-Team’ in Libya. Family photo from the “Find James Foley” FB page.


Katy: Ross was the main cinematographer on the film. At times when he wasn’t available to film in Syria or Libya, we hired first, Rachel Beth Anderson… no, in 2011 it was James Foley, then Rachel Beth Anderson. So Ross did a shoot in Libya with his friend Peter Brouckaert (Peter is one of the E-Team). Shortly thereafter, we got a call from Peter (he is the weapons specialist of the E-Team), saying ‘I’m going back to Libya. They’re trying to kill Gaddafi. I’m exploring what the rebels are doing and you really need to film.’ We couldn’t make it in that short notice, so we hired James Foley who Ross had met in Libya and who Peter had worked closely with. Jim was a free lancer in the region. He worked for a lot of people. He was very humble. He was easy to work with, and he was available, so we hired him on the spot.

Ross: It was funny. I was filming Peter at the Radisson Hotel in Libya. All the journalists were there and it was a whole scene and Peter’s into that stuff. This didn’t make it into the film, but Jim, literally, as I was filming Peter, Jim walked into the frame. They hugged, and then I put the camera down and I met Jim. So when we needed somebody, we said, ‘Oh, maybe Jim would be good.’

Katy: Yeah, so we talked to him about how we were interested in a lot of news reporting. We had a couple of conversations with him about how we were filming a documentary, and so we talked to him about leaving the camera on even if Peter wanted to stop working. We told him to continue filming Peter, and he was completely on board with that idea. And then in 2012 Rachel Beth Anderson filmed when they went to Syria the first time.

Ross: She did amazing work as well. She did incredible stuff.

 

So she brought the film back and you two edited. So you were in Syria and Libya part time and then you came back (to Ross).

Ross: (not in the order of the settings of the film) I was in Syria for a mission and I was in Libya for a mission. Rachel Beth Anderson was in Syria for a mission and Jim was in Libya for a mission. Katy and I went to all the homes. We did all the home filming together which we loved.

Katy: That was the first trip. We sent one person to Paris on another.

Ross: And we were hopping around a bit. Part of the reason is when we first approached Human Rights Watch with the idea of the film, one of the things they said is, ‘If you go out into the field, it can be only one person.’

Katy Chevigny, co-director of 'E-Team.' Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Katy Chevigny, co-director of ‘E-Team.’ Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Katy: Well, you are literally squeezing in the car with them.

Ross: Yeah, you can’t have a sound person or a producer.

Katy: It couldn’t be an entire film crew.

Ross: Yeah, you had one person doing the sound, the producing, the directing, the camera.

How did this idea evolve? I know you co-directed Born Into Brothels (to Ross), Deadline (to Katy) and Election Day (to Katy) and of course Born Into Brothels is…very nitty gritty. How did this project evolve? Katy said you’ve collaborated before and you’re friends and you trust one another, but whose idea was it?

Katy: This all came out on the elevator. (Katy and I went up on the elevator together to the Sunshine Sachs office where the interview was held.)

Ross: Yeah, we should always go on elevators and get the info. (We all laugh.)

Katy: It started with Ross and I wanting to work on a project together, and looking for the right project. We didn’t want to jump into something. We wanted it to be really worthwhile. We knew the work that it entailed, and we knew it was going to take a long time. So a colleague of ours said, ‘You know you guys, there are a group of people at Human Rights Watch. They do very interesting work.’ We were interested in what Human Rights Watch did and we knew a little bit about their work because we had our films, the ones you mentioned, in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. So that caused the leadership of Human Rights Watch to have a stake in us. We learned shortly thereafter that Human Rights Watch had never allowed an independent film crew to film their work, even though over the years there had been filmmakers that tried to urge them to give them permission to film. But Human Rights Watch said ‘No.The risks outweighed any possible rewards.’ So when we started talking about making a film about the E-Team, Human Rights Watch said, ‘Well, you know, if it’s you guys and you have good track records and do what you’re suggesting, maybe we can have a conversation.’ When we met with them we made it clear we needed to have editorial control. This was going to be an independent film, and they’re used to controlling their image for their very affluent fundraisers. But you know, this was a different kettle of fish. They understood that and understood the principle of what we were talking about.

Ross: We told them we would take a warts and all approach.

Say again

Ross: A warts and all approach…

It takes courage to say that.

Ross: No. It takes courage for them to agree to it.

Ross Kauffman at a Q and A for 'E-Team.'
Ross Kauffman at a Q and A for ‘E-Team.’ Photo courtesy of Kimberly Cecchini. (Montclair Film Festival.)

Well, you knew they could say no.

Ross:  Yes. Well, we were very clear. We also said if we do this, the Emergency Team… Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter have to be willing to let us in their personal lives. That was even harder for the Emergency Team, so you have to talk to them about that. I think it was harder for the Emergency Team to say yes to that then the Human Rights Watch.

Katy: So with the E-Team, we had people who were used to being on camera. You know, sometimes we are making documentaries about people who have never been on camera. That wasn’t the case with these guys. They’ve been on television talking about their work in the news. But Ross and I were also like, you know when we come to Paris, we’re going to stay with you and film you having breakfast, having dinner.

Ross: taking a shower.

Katy: Anna was like… ‘Is that really necessary?’

Ross: Peter taking a shower. (he smiles) Well, Anna, as soon as she got out of the shower, I knocked on the door one time and barged in on her. She was a good sport about that. It didn’t make it into the film.

You filmed her putting on make up.

Ross: Yes, she did put on make up occasionally, which was interesting, especially in war zones.

Katy: So that is part of the evolution of the conversation about the terms of getting ready to do this. And Ross and I had dinner with members of the E-Team in New York several years ago before filming. It was just Ross and myself, none of their bosses, just the E-Team, so that they could be very frank and we could be very frank about what we were willing and not willing to do. By the end of the dinner we had seen  their dynamic with each other.  We saw they had a sense of humor. They were very lively and irreverent and frank, and we were like these guys can be in a movie.

Ross: They are so diverse. You couldn’t get a more diverse group of people, not only where they come from but also their personalities. So we said, we’ve got some great characters. Let’s see if there’s a movie here.

Peter…with his munitions.

Ross: Peter. That’s all you have to say.

I thought that Ole was down to earth but serious…

Ross: They’re all serious in their own way. Ole is a placid Norwegian, calm, peaceful.

Anna is feisty.

Ross: Tough Russian.

I’m glad you included her comment after the bombing suggesting there must be a No Fly Zone. I thought it was good you included that because to effect something like that is so difficult and she felt it was necessary.

Ross: So complicated. Then Fred’s just this funny, lovely, meticulous, goofy, incredibly smart New Yorker. Great guy

Katy: Great guy.

(L to R) Fred Abrahams, Anna Neistat, directors Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny, Ole Solvang.
(L to R) Fred Abrahams, Anna Neistat, directors Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny, Ole Solvang. Photo courtesy of Larry Busacca/Getty Images. (Sundance Film Festival).

Could you talk about how they were frank with you about Human Rights Watch? I realize that Human Rights Watch has their image to think about to receive donations. How could this film ever interfere with that?

Katy: I think in terms of the frankness it was that they didn’t want to have their time wasted by frivolous people who were never going to do anything, invading their home and filming them. I think that’s a wise thing to fear with a documentary crew. Not everybody can deliver. There were times that we were not sure that we could deliver. It’s a very hard thing to get to the end of a film and have the money and find the story. So they wanted to make sure that we were the right people. That was part of their frankness. They were not just going to let anybody in their house. They also said they spent a lot of time making video that promotes the work of Human Rights Watch and they said that they hoped that this was going to be something that had a perspective that was more personal which is what we were interested in.

Ross: Yeah. They didn’t want to make a fundraising film.

Katy: They had made enough fundraising films.

Ross: Their truth is all about honesty and integrity and telling the truth. They took that same approach to the film. We were all on the same page. We haven’t really talked about it that much. But they wanted it to be real.

I think what’s wonderful about the film is that you began the film in medias res, in the middle of things showing them as they did their work, and you ended it en medias res, the same way showing they were continuing their work. And of course, we got to look into what they did in their personal lives. Can you talk a little bit about why you selected that approach?

Ross: I was just going to say Katy and I… it is funny…we literally didn’t even have to say anything to each other like, ‘Oh, maybe we should go to their homes and film them.’ It was just a given that we would be spending time with them. We would get into their personal lives and try to understand who they were, not only because it’s fascinating, but because that’s how we connect to people. A lot of time you see films about “the work, the work, the work.” We connect to people. Katy and I were pretty clear about that from the get-go that we were going to be in their homes.

Katy Chevigny co-director of the 'E-Team.' Katy is the co-founder of Big Mouth Productions. Photo courtesy of the Big Mouth Productions website.
Katy Chevigny co-director of the ‘E-Team.’ Katy is the co-founder of Big Mouth Productions. Photo courtesy of the Big Mouth Productions website.

Katy: I think part of that is because early on they gave us amazing access to their work by being able to go with them into the field. It was kind of like an intimate view to what that work was really like. We were excited about that, but I think we also liked that occasional behind the scenes feeling you get from seeing them at home. We actually got that response from the people who worked at Human Rights Watch who said they saw sides of Anna and Fred that they didn’t know about from seeing them at home with their families. You know how it is: people have a professional persona, and when you work with someone, you just see that side of them. Movies are art as we feel, so they’re about the full person. We’re not just making a brochure. So that’s where we’re coming from.

I think there’s also an effect whether you intentioned it or not, that these are ordinary people, yet they’re extraordinary. They are heroes, but yet, they are living every day lives. The fact that you’ve shown this is almost like indirectly selling becoming involved in something like this. If it’s a very glossy promo film, the average person would say, I can’t do something like that. This way, they might feel, hey, maybe I can do something like that.

Ross: I think that’s the truth for everybody. The truth for everybody might be, maybe I can do that. It may not be right for me, but maybe I can do that. Maybe I can do something like this, or anything really. Maybe I can click on a website and give a little bit or care about what’s going on in the world.

Katy: We’ve been asked that question from different angles. In LA…

Ross: Last night also.

Katy: …the moderator stated these people are really heroes. And we said well we didn’t start out to make a film about heroes, and their question was, ‘What do you mean by that because they’re obviously heroic.’ We said, yes, their acts are heroic, but we were really determined not to make a film where they’re placed on a pedestal. For some of the reasons that you’re really getting at that are not entirely intentional, but…when you see people put on a pedestal you say, ‘well, that’s really wonderful what they’re doing, but it has nothing to do with me.’

Ross: You can’t relate to those people.

Katy: But when people see others doing regular things like having to tell their kids to do their homework, I think it forces the viewer to ask, ‘Well, wait a minute. They are a little bit like me in some ways, but they are not like me in other ways. You have to question your own motivations for what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be, ‘Well, I’m going to go and be a human rights worker.’ It could also be, ‘What’s my engagement with the world outside?’ It’s a very simple question and you really want to ask people basic questions in movies because those are the kinds of things that are interesting to think about.

The impact of that is very real and engaging. We see it and I thought to myself, maybe I could do that.

Ross: We’re also showing what it’s like to be human having doubts. Experiencing failures, experiencing things that don’t work out the way you want to. Having kids, having families.  Also in the work, having doubts. Like, what am I doing? Is this really working? Is this worth it? How do I deal with this frustration? That is something we all feel. When you see these films about heroes, you don’t get that. It’s almost like they’re super human. But in this film these are just regular people that are doing some pretty great stuff.

Interesting because in the realm of blockbusters, we’re seeing so many superheroes and, after a while, it’s… what’s the word, NULLIFYING? It’s like you said, you just wash your hands of it. But if it’s anything we need, we need everybody engaged…on the same level. And I thought when Beth…

Katy:  Rachel.

Rachel Beth Anderson, additional cinematography on 'E-Team.'
Rachel Beth Anderson, additional cinematography on ‘E-Team.’

I’m sorry, when Rachel covered the bombing of a town where a man’s family was practically wiped out…how can one not help but empathize with him?

Ross: But the way she shot it was allowing us to feel that empathy. We feel empathy because of who she is and the way she used her camera. It is a communication that happens. She was able to create the communication between us and him. She did that a few times. I’m thinking when I watch those scenes, that Rachel is just amazing. She’s as present at that moment as he is, and it’s a dialogue

The other time when the bombs were being dropped…

Katy: That was Ross.

Ross: In the beginning.

There were a couple of times we heard the bombs were being dropped. Did you have any apprehensions?

Ross: No, when you have that camera there in that particular circumstance, no. In another circumstance, perhaps. I was just thinking… make sure I capture the frame, focus, get the shot. You have that filter and you are not worried. Funny story about this. When David our editor had the footage, he said, ‘Ross, you want to see the footage?’ I said, ‘Yeah sure.’ He showed it to me and I said, ‘David, that’s great but you don’t have to put sound effects in there. You know the bombs and the airplanes are really loud, that’s great.’ Interesting. He looked at me and said, ‘Ross, there are no sound effects.’

In other words, you got everything.

Ross: Well, that’s what I actually heard, but I don’t remember it like that. I remember it being a lot calmer. And David is like, ‘No Ross.’ I made him show me the final pro tracks on the monitor, I was like, ‘OK. Gotcha.’ Interesting.

It’s interesting you said it was like through a filter…you were redirected from danger by I’ve got to get the shot.

Ross: I was also trying to be present for the emotions that are happening on the screen that are right in front of me.

The fact is with this film, you are really accountable. This is being viewed globally and you are accountable to everyone.

Ross: It should be interesting, the reactions

Katy: Editing it.

Ross: In verite docs we are literally just following the action, following what our characters are doing. We’re following the emotions they’re experiencing. When we’re filming not really, but when we’re editing to a certain degree, we’re trying…

Katy: When we’re editing we’re thinking will the American audiences engage with this material on Syria? We ask these kinds of questions.

Ross: And other audiences.

Katy: OK we started with American audiences. Because the emergency team travels all over the world and they are international. They are not all Americans. We also hoped that the film would have an appeal beyond the US. We barely filmed here at all, just a little bit at the Human Rights Watch offices. So it’s really a story about people from different parts of the world being engaged with other parts of the world and making global connections. How does somebody from this part of the world try to have an impact on this other part of the world while talking to people from this other part of the world? It’s a web of interactions between the E-Team and the activists on the ground in these countries and other governmental leaders in various other places who have an influence over these actions. So yes, it certainly is a serious subject matter to have impacted, but what helped us was to ground ourselves in our characters. And we were never asking of ourselves to make the definitive film on Syria or Libya…

Ross: We’re not even trying to answer the questions. We just want to ask them.

And promote others to ask the same thing on a very human level. This is not a political film.

Ross and Katy: Thank you.

Is anybody saying it’s a political film?

Ross: Well, you never know. Everyone comes out and sees different things from different angles. It’s been fun because people are saying, ‘Wow. This is just like a regular movie, a narrative, a scripted film.’ And that’s sort of a great thing. We want to make movies that are entertaining, that have great characters and great stories. So that’s really gratifying.

Quick questions about distribution and funding. Distribution?

Ross: Netflix. World wide. Netflix. Yeah it’s amazing. Starting Friday the 24th.

Katy: Everywhere that Netflix is.

Ross: And they’ve pretty much expanded all outlets.

Katy: And it’s worth pointing out that for a documentary, it’s unprecedented in our experience in documentary film making that it has this kind of reach all of a sudden, like that. So just this morning we spoke to a reporter from Chile and it’s going to be in Chile on Friday, in Spanish. Netflix is a big global operation so they can do all that.

Ross: And also we’re theatrically releasing in a number of cities within the next week and a half.

Katy: And that’s probably because deep down we love the big screen.

Ross: But this is also a big screen movie.

It is a big screen movie…for the impact. I’m not saying the impact is lessened on the small screen, on the one hand, but I should also get into a theatre to see it on the big screen.

Ross: It’s really worth. Believe me we’ve also made movies that are not big screen.

Katy: Would be great. Come tonight if you want at IFC.

Ross: Will be a great Q and A if you’re around.

How did you get the funding?

Katy: Slowly, through grass root foundations, through drips and drabs over and across many years and at the very end we got some big investor and then the Netflix deal.

Ross: It’s funny because the initial idea was in 2008. We started filming in January 11, 2011 and then we shot for 2 and ½ years and we edited for a year. So it took a long time to raise the initial money to start shooting. On top of that it’s very important to mention, we all had children during the making of this film. I had a kid, you (Katy), had a child, Fred had a child, Peter had a child and Ana and Ole had children. There’s something about that that actually speaks to the film. The idea of hope and life.

Absolutely, in the generations of family, it’s the most human of activities. In The Seventh Seal, (the classic Ingmar Bergman film), the family goes on. The Knight goes off with Death, but the family lives on.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs:
The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists’ Sonnets.
She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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