Documenting the essential and dangerous investigative work of the Human Rights Watch Emergencies Team.
We’ve become accustomed to seeing embedded documentary journalists and film crews in international hotspots, usually shadowing a military unit or a particular soldier as they go about their soldiering or peacekeeping tasks. Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington’s excellent documentary Restrepo (2010) following an American unit in war-torn Afghanistan comes to mind, or Janus Metz Pedersen’s Armadillo from the same year, a Danish film where the crew embedded with a Danish unit in the Taliban held Helmand province. Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s E-Team likewise takes a small camera crew into some dangerous situations, but the (big) difference in this case is that they’re embedded with a team of non-military activists from the Human Rights Watch Emergency Team documenting hardships and atrocities wrought by governments and ‘terrorists’ alike on the local populace. The documentary follows the footsteps of four particular E-Team members as they traverse from settled home life into violence riddled territories and back again. The footage is at turns gruesome, angering, tender, and surprising: a fair rendering of the joys and struggles of a life truly driven by the simple yet elusive ideal of basic inalienable human rights for all.
When not arranging press conferences and catching up with family from their flat in Paris, investigators Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang are on the ground in Syria and Libya, or in Russia agitating for political change which will have positive flow on effects in those former territories. Away from his farm Peter Bouckaert (director of Human Rights Watch’s emergencies division) is putting his vast knowledge of military weapons to use, piecing together a narrative of events and providing evidence of “who was responsible for what” based on the known military resources of various groups. Lastly, New Yorker Fred Abrahams talks through the satisfaction of helping to affect significant change—such as his experience gathering and giving evidence in the trial that brought former Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic to justice—as well as the frustration when no amount of evidence seems to be enough, and the need to continue the work regardless.
The key filmmaking unit is an interesting array of talented folks fished from various pools but all with a variety of frontline experience in ‘issues documentary’. The directorial team includes Katy Chevigny of Big Mouth Productions whose company partner played the role of producer in this project (they appear to chop and change roles on different shoots). Their production company has carved out something of a niche working with not-for-profit organisations. Co-director Ross Kauffman will be known to some for his debut feature Born Into Brothels (2004), a documentary shedding light on the lives and situation of children born of prostitution in the slums of Calcutta. Oscar awarded editor David Teague’s work will be recognisable to festival goers in last year’s New Zealand International Film Festival programmed documentary Cutie and the Boxer, amongst other notable works.
With such a production team it is unsurprising that the film evinces some cinematic artistry, yet E-Team’s strength lies primarily in its honest portrait of an organisation performing a very important if overwhelming task: uncovering the stories of communities whose voice has been silenced. As exciting as it is to run first-person-shaky-cam fashion in a dangerous covert border crossing—an early sequence does a good job of impressing the magnitude of the risks this team willingly engages—it is just as compelling to watch these idealist-activists integrate their work into their home and family settings. Indeed, scenes in Paris with Anna’s teenage son asking questions about activities he’s seeing footage of from these dangerous, far off places is quite telling about the pressures of such a life. Watching the team genuinely connect with people whose lives are lived in awful, fearful circumstances, then leaving them with no assurance of anything other than a guarantee to get their story out to the world in some shape is both moving and challenging. The many frustrations the team faces, though evident, does not dull the passionate belief in the rights of all humanity that drives them to brave the risks and to continue to act.