During the intense fall season, the International Documentary
Association screens a series of the year’s best documentaries
with Q & As to follow. I sat down recently with doc vets Ross Kaufman (Oscar-winner “Born Into Brothels’) and Katy Chevigny (“Deadline,” “Election Day”), co-directors of “The E-Team
” (theaters October 22, Netflix October 24), an extraordinary doc that follows four intrepid Humans Rights Watchers as they go deep into dangerous territory to establish– in a way some journalists do not– exactly what human rights abuses are happening in countries like Libya and Syria. When they share their results, their fearless work has a huge impact on how the rest of the world reacts to these horrific situations.
This should be a strong awards contender.
Here’s a slightly edited version of the Q & A which is also viewable, along with the trailer, in the videos below.
Anne Thompson: You premiered “The E-Team” at Sundance, where it won an award for cinematography. Talk about your different cinematographers, including Jim Foley, who recently was kidnapped and beheaded in Syria.
Ross Kaufman: There were three cinematographers on the project and I was director of photography, so I went to Syria and Libya, shooting loads of “The E-Team.” Then a woman named Rachel Beth Anderson, who did an incredible job, shot some amazing footage in Syria; and then Jim Foley. I actually filmed with Jim while I was in Libya. I didn’t know who he was and I hadn’t learned he had been kidnapped. Peter Bogart was good friends with him, and when we needed another person in Libya, Peter said, “Well, do you want to hire him?” And we did. It was almost as simple as that. He’s a great guy and, obviously, he did a great job.
I’m sorry for your loss. How did you come to decide to follow these people for a film?
Katy Chevigny: Seven years ago, maybe eight, Ross and I were looking for the right project. I know a little about Human Rights Watch from their festival, but we didn’t know a lot about it. Through some contacts with some friends, we were told about The E-Team, and we had kind of a blind date set up, having dinner with them. Ross and I had dinner with Anna, Ole, Fred, and Peter.
Kaufman: It was a good date. [Audience laughs]
Chevigny: At the end of that dinner, we were pretty much like, “I would love to see a movie about these guys.” And they were so different from each other, so interesting, so fun to talk to, so lively, so irreverent. We were drawn in immediately, so that was one of the main things that helped us.
How long did you work on this?
Kaufman: It’s funny. Katy showed me the initial email when we started talking about it, and it was September of 2007. I don’t know exactly when, but we just spent two or three years raising money. I don’t think anyone believed that we got access to this organization, because they hadn’t given anyone access at all.
Why did they go with you, and did they make your work more difficult?
Kaufman: As documentary filmmakers, we like to think we make everyone’s work more difficult. [Audience laughs] But I have to say: we went into this meeting with Carroll Bogert, who’s in the film, and she was extremely brave. She said, “I want to do this. We’re going to give you total creative control. We’ve had other people in here that have asked us to do this,” but they knew Katy’s work and they knew my work; they trusted us. I give them a lot of credit.
Who was in the car going into Syria?
What was the reason you needed to work with her? And how did you find her?
Kaufman: Well, we all had babies during the making of this film. Katy had a baby, I had a baby, Fred had a baby, Peter, Anna, Ole — thank goodness, because that made the film great.
Chevigny: They did it especially for us. [Audience laughs]
Kaufman: As documentary filmmakers we have to make a living, so there were certain times I or Katy weren’t available to shoot or do sound, and you depend on other people. And it’s hard to delegate that kind of thing, because it’s very sensitive — it’s very intimate. But finding Rachel and Jim Foley was pretty incredible, because they did a great job.
Chevigny: Marilyn, our amazing producer, was tasked with finding somebody to go to Syria, and the phone call was basically Marilyn saying to somebody, “Will you fly to Turkey, spend a few days there until you meet the right smuggler, and then smuggle across the border?” I’m sure Marilyn could tell the story better, but she called DP after DP after DP, and pretty much all of them said, “I have to check with my wife or my girlfriend,” and they all came back with “she said no.” Finally, Marilyn called Rachel, this 24-year-old woman who didn’t have a wife or girlfriend to say no. She had a mom, who Marilyn would call every day to tell her she was safe. Marilyn had a lot of gray hairs over that one, but she did an amazing job. So it’s kind of interesting how people get into the work they get into — which people take risks.
What kind of danger were you in while making this movie? It looked like there were some risks.
Kaufman: When we were in Syria, when we were in Libya, Rachel and Jim were in their respective places — you’re in danger, but the truth is that the people on the ground can’t leave. They’re the ones who are in danger: they’re stuck there every day, and they can’t get out, so, you know, The E-Team go in there and take very calculated risks. They weigh the risk with the reward, and they can get out, the people who are there, living in the countries.
So these people are real heroes, and they’re also performing a function that the journalists don’t seem to be performing. They seem to be a valuable conduit for getting this information out.
Chevigny: Yeah. One of the things that’s changed since we started making this film is that the work of Human Rights Watch is filling a little bit of a void left from the fewer and fewer international journalists working, partly because of the danger and partly because of all the problems we know about journalism — the cutbacks. There’s also, interestingly, a counter-trend, which are journalists who are interested in making a difference — not just reporting the news, but also instigating some change about what they’re seeing. So a lot of the E-Team members are former journalists who wanted to put a little more “oomph” behind what they were looking forward to. That’s some backstory on what interested us as well.
It seems you felt strongly about putting their personal lives into the film?
Kaufman: Katy and I were very clear from the get-go. As amazing as they might be, they’re people. You could say they’re heroes, but they’re human beings, and we always want to make films where you could relate to the people in the film. Sometimes we were just more interested to hang out, even if them being in Paris, Geneva, and Berlin made it easier. [Audience laughs] It was great to just see them at home. That’s how we relate to people: through their families, through their homes, just doing regular, normal things. Yelling at your kids or telling them to go do your homework.
Chevigny: And we didn’t want to put them on a pedestal and say, “Look at these people who do this thing. You’re nothing like them and can’t relate to them.” We actually wanted there to be some moments of identification. It definitely made us think about what we do and how we live our eyes, just to go back and see how they’re just and nothing like me.
So do you want us to ask if we’d be that brave and obsessive?
I don’t think so. I mean, for us, we just want to show people who they are and what they do. We all do different things in life that might be great or not be great, that might be courageous or not be courageous. It’s something we do. They do some things that are great and, sometimes, their kids tell them off.
Something about heroes bothers you.
Kaufman: It’s not that it “bothers” me. I just feel like the question of defining someone like that is too easy. It’s much more complicated than that.
Chevigny: If they’re a hero, you can just say, “I’m only a regular person who has to go buy groceries. They do that and I do this.”
Kaufman: And what’s a hero? What’s your definition of a hero?
How do you know when this is over? A movie like this is one where you can just keep going.
Kaufman: When your editor says it’s over. [Audience laughs] When it’s the night before Sundance and you have to get that damn print to Sundance. How do you know it’s over?
Chevigny: Ross and I like submitting our films to Sundance when they’re not done yet, so that we get a deadline. Partly you run out of money. There have to be some external pressures. Actually, once we stopped filming, Anya actually said, “Now, when I get a call, I don’t have to tell Katy and Ross or let Marilyn know.”
Kaufman: We’re making these vérité-driven films that follow the story as it’s going. Sometimes you shoot a whole film and then edit it. With this particular film, we were editing it while still shooting. We took about a year on it. We’re editing and trying to figure out where the story is going as we’re editing, and it’s a very strange thing. After a certain point — especially after the chemical weapons happen and we went to Anya and Peter — I felt like it was making sense. But we don’t know until we’re back in the editing room and we put it together, at which point we feel like there’s an ending. Then we just work it and work it. As Katy said, we had an incredible editor, David Teague, who really brought it together.
How do you know where the emotion is, when you’ve been working on it for so long?
Chevigny: Ross is always on top of it. I will give him credit for that. Ross always has a sense for where the feeling is. It’s like your strength as a filmmaker. So I think it’s intuition.
Kaufman: I think we’re all people, all humans, and it’s funny: someone like Anya is this tough Russian woman. I remember, when we first met, I thought, “Oh, my God, we’re never going to get past this. There’s a wall there.” But it takes years — literally years. I remember, when we first went, she was just… not “acting,” but she was very aware of the camera. By the last shoot, she didn’t even know we were going to finish the film. We were at Sundance, we had the premiere, and she said, “Ross, I thought you were just going to Paris to get away from your year-old son. I thought you needed a break. I didn’t think you would ever finish the film.” And I think that’s just where you get to the emotion: people let their guard down and you let them be vulnerable; you give them a space to be themselves. But it takes a real openness, and Katy and I were very clear that that’s what we wanted to get at — that emotion. It’s important.
Chevigny: We would also watch, together, the footage that came from Syria, and we would kind of pause it whenever one of us felt something. A lot of it’s just boring or confusing, then one of us would say, “Whoa!” Another would ask what they were feeling. We’d have a conversation about that, see if there was a way to draw that out, so that’s what it was about, too.
Audience member: Did this take on a life of its own? Did you have an outline of what you want to do, and when you discover what you’d like to be doing once shooting, did much change?
Kaufman: This is a vérité film, so you just say, “You know what? We’re just going to go in and follow the action as it goes, and we’re going to follow the story.” But we have to do grant proposals and things like that. Sometimes we wrote these synopses, and the initial synopsis was very close to what the finished film ended up being — in terms of the structure. We didn’t know people would have kids and that I would be there to film it.
Chevigny: And we didn’t know what countries we were going to be in, so we wrote a whole proposal about other countries.
So you were around when she’s going into labor, right? They call you so it can be shot?
Kaufman: Well, that was thanks to our amazing producer, Marilyn. Can you just stand up, please? [Audience applauds] There was a chemical weapons report on what was happening, and Marilyn said, “Ross, you have to go to Paris. You just have to get there.” She pushed me to go, and I was there, and I was sleeping in the lower bunk of Anya’s bed. Katy and I went there together, we would sleep in her apartment — at that point I was alone — but I get a knock on the door at 4 in the morning. “Would you like to come to the hospital?” In all my years of training to have everything ready on the go, it came very in handy at that moment.
Audience member: The film is incredibly important to young people because of what it says. Not only how personal evil is, but especially because of what anyone, individually, can do if they’re brave. With next month’s release, what are you and your distributors doing to channel that? Is Human Rights Watch doing a big thing around it? Maybe showing it to young people for some positive direction.
Chevigny: One of the interesting things about releasing a documentary is that, often, the film comes to take on a life of its own, in terms of how the audience reacts to it and what they want to do with it. We have some ideas, but I imagine it’ll surprise us. In some of the screenings we’ve already done, there have been many screenings where a person in the audience — sometimes a young person — asks how they can do this. Often we’ll have a member of the team with us to help them get started, and that’s exactly what Human Rights Watch wants to see. It can come in many forms — not every person has to work for The E-Team. So Human Rights Watch is very excited about that and are working on other ways to get people engaged about what’s happening on the other side of the world.
Kaufman: Netflix are releasing the film as a worldwide original, which gets the film out to a fairly large amount of people. There’s no outlet where you can get a film out to more people, so of course we’re going to have educational distributors, but that’s where people are watching movies now. That’s where people are going to see documentaries, and we’re really excited.
Audience member: How are you dealing with the potential rifts that some members must encounter? I’m shooting a picture in Russia and we’re concerned about some participants’ safety. One of your people lives in Moscow. Putin is not known for taking opponents and being nice to them, so how do you balance the need to have a character and, at the same time, put the character in a long-term risk?
Chevigny: Yeah, well, we were lucky, in some ways, because we were working with Human Rights Watch, who are already working to get the consent of people, the witnesses and survivors. Also, everybody must consent. Not only did we get people’s consent for when we filmed, but people who were in vulnerable situation, we went back when we finished the film and asked if they still felt like they were safe being in the film. There were a couple of people who now believed they might be in a dangerous situation, so we took them out. We were very concerned about that, with this particular film.
Audience member: Are you going to have a sequel? When you finished shooting, Palestine started doing the same thing to their own people — just in a smaller area.
Kaufman: We always thought that this would make an amazing series, because there are too many things going on in the world, but there’s always these new stories that are happening, and, with each new story, there are new things to uncover, new things to discover. So we always thought this would be an amazing series. We’ll see.
Audience member: I had a question about the scene with Anya’s son, where he’s watching the film — I think it’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” What was the choice behind that? Did you get to interview him? It seemed it was reflecting a bit of a disconnect between his experience and his parents’.
Kaufman: I have to say: that’s really bizarre, because that’s their favorite movie. They love “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” They would watch it. It’s funny, because we had a discussion about putting that scene into the film. At a certain point Katy didn’t want to put it in, I wanted to put it in, and, at a certain point, we changed the music around, but it was one of those things where, in the end, we feel that it not only speaks to who they are, as a child, but our culture, and the way our culture looks at violence. I don’t know. I like it, though.
Audience member: Was there any footage that proved so horrific, moving you emotionally and making you want to do something? Were there scenes that proved challenging to view?
Chevigny: A lot of it was very hard to watch. We had a lot of conversations about how much graphic violence and gore to put in the film, because we were thinking a lot about your experience. We didn’t want to traumatize people or be sensationalist, but we also wanted it to be true. And it’s terrible. Finding that balance had us go around and around to get what was right.
Audience member: I was wondering, as I was watching it, how long The E-Team goes into these spaces for. As we see it, they do the reporting and then they leave. I was also wondering if you were thinking about giving small, disposable cameras to people in these countries.
I never thought about it, no. We did a film, “Born Into Brothels,” that gives cameras to young kids, but a company like Witness gives them to people around the world. It’s a great tool, but now people with cell phones have access, which is amazing. It’s not so much “how long they go into it.” It’s “how many times you go back.” They go over and over. Fred’s been going into Libya since 2005. Peter is working in Africa’s Central Republic right now. He’s been there at least four, five times, and he’s seen the most horrific stuff. We’ve seen some of the footage he’s shot. And he’ll continue to go back. Anya will be going to the Ukraine over and over again. So it’s really about staying with it and really trying to understand — not just based on your one time there, but over a number of years, sadly.