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Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, much of the fighting has essentially taken place in a black box outside the view of the rest of the world. But in 2013, a team of human rights investigators snuck into the country in the wake of bombings that killed hundreds of civilians. Kojo chats with the directors of the documentary “E-Team,” and an activist who’s investigated potential war crimes in dangerous places throughout the world.
- Ross Kauffman Director, Producer, Director of Photography, "E-TEAM"
- Katy Chevigny Director, Producer, "E-TEAM"
- Fred Abrahams Special Advisor, Human Rights Watch
Watch The ‘E-Team’ Movie Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a decade of documentary films in D.C. and a new festival celebrating the films and filmmakers that call the nation's capital, home.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, understanding the fog of war through documentary film, as a cycle of political unrest and violence spiraled out of control in Syria, during the past several years that country became something of a black box to the rest of the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 2013, a team of investigators with Human Rights Watch smuggled themselves inside Syria in the wake of bombings that they, later learned, killed hundreds of civilians. They were part of a group of investigators organized to report on potential war crimes in turbulent places around the world, people who often risk their own lives to do so.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThese men and women are the subject of a new documentary that follows them on that journey over Turkey's borders and into Syria, and into some of the most vexing conflicts on Earth. Joining us to discuss this is Ross Kauffman, he is co-director, producer and director of photography on "E-TEAM." Ross Kauffman, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROSS KAUFFMANThank you.
NNAMDIKaty Chevigny is co-director and producer of "E-TEAM," Katy Chevigny, thank you for joining us.
MS. KATY CHEVIGNYThanks.
NNAMDIAnd Fred Abrahams is a special advisor for Human Rights Watch whose work is featured in the documentary film, "E-TEAM," Fred, thank you for joining us.
MR. FRED ABRAHAMSIt's a pleasure.
NNAMDI"E-TEAM" is in theaters and on Netflix on October 24. It won an award for cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, that's in theater's and Netflix on October 24. This project took you right into the heart of some of the most dangerous parts of the world, right alongside men and women who are investigating violence, literally in the moments after it happened, who are the so-called "E-TEAM" you embedded with and what exactly is their mission, starting with you, Katy?
CHEVIGNYThe film "E-TEAM" stands for Emergency's Team, the Emergency's Team of Human Rights Watch. And Ross and I had the pleasure and honor of spending a great deal of time with four of the members of the "E-TEAM," and they're Fred, who's here today, along with Anna Neistat, Ole Solvang and Peter Bouckaert. And they live all around the world, and they travel all over the world to see if human rights abuses are occurring.
NNAMDIRoss, what's the timeframe in which you followed them? You track one team in Syria and another, that included Fred, that goes to Libya.
KAUFFMANWe started filming in January -- on January 11, 2011, two days before my son, Harry, was born, and we kept filming for about two and a half years and then we edited it for about a year, but it's funny because Katy and I have an email going back to September of 2007, when we first started talking about the project.
NNAMDISo we're talking about a project, seven years, essentially, in the making, six or seven years?
KAUFFMANYeah, these films seem to take a long a longtime.
NNAMDIFred, how would you describe what you do and where you fit in to it?
ABRAHAMSWell, traditionally, human rights work involved going to a country or sometimes in the United States, going to a place and conducting research and then returning to the home office and writing up reports. But around 1998, we started to shift the approach a bit to react in real time, and especially for armed conflict but crisis in general, human rights emergencies. We wanted to influence the situation, influence policy at the moment. And so we tried to, without sacrificing rigor, increase the tempo of our product.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number, if you have questions or comments, please, call us. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Did your opinion about the unrest in Syria change when reports surfaced about the Syrian government possibly committing war crimes against its own people? How so and why, 800-433-8850? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIFred, so much of what the outside world is learning about places like Syria is coming from video footage people are posting on the web. Your colleague, Anna Neistat, says, in the film that, "nothing compares to going to these places yourself and conducting exhaustive interviews with people on the ground."
MS. ANNA NEISTATNothing compares to being on the ground, in the level of investigation that you can conduct. How many were there, was it a big group?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE(speaks foreign language) .
NEISTATWe almost never use just one interview to make a case, because people, sometimes, exaggerate, sometimes they're just not truthful. So we interviewed several different people about the same crimes. Do you remember what date it was when (unintelligible) was attacked? War is hell, always. War is always bad. This is not our role to make this insightful statement. Our role is to show what exactly happened in this particular village and why we think this is a violation of international law.
NNAMDIAnna Neistat, talking about what it's like being on the ground. Fred, you went to Libya, but wherever you go it's almost invariably a fairly chaotic situation. What methodology do you use when you find yourself on the ground?
ABRAHAMSI would call it a hybrid of investigative journalism and criminal investigation. So, like journalists, we seek out multiple sources, we try and corroborate information with original documents, court records, autopsy reports and visit the site, visit the crime scene, if you will, to piece it together. But it's different from journalism, you know, journalists are mostly deadline driven, they have to file copy and we have time to dig deeper into these stories, discern patterns and, of course, the big difference is, we're an advocacy organization, we want things to change. So we report with the facts, we want the facts to speak for themselves but we're trying to get something moving.
NNAMDIRoss, Katy, when you're making this film, exactly what did you want the people you were talking to, the victims, to contribute, because at one point a woman, Anna Neistat, is talking to in Syria, who just lost her family says, "What's the point in talking?" What did you want -- how did you want them to contribute to this story?
CHEVIGNYWell, one of the things that we wanted to do with this film was to really take the viewer behind the scenes by offering extra intimacy to the kind of work that Fred and Anna and Ole and Peter do. So that moment you're talking about in the film, this woman in Syria has -- is telling the story about how she saw her three sons executed by Assad's forces. And instead of just including her testimony about the events, in our film we also include her sitting there for a few minutes after and reflecting on what she's just shared and then she says, "What is the point of this and will there be any change or any difference from what I've just shared," which is something that often you'd see on the cutting room floor.
CHEVIGNYBut we wanted to include it to bring up the idea of, to ask the viewer also, to engage in the idea of, like, is there a point to this? What can be gained by sharing this? What can you do, sort of, to raise some of the tougher questions with that?
NNAMDIAnd what probably ends up on the cutting room floor also is what you respond when somebody says to you, "What is the point of talking?" What do you say?
KAUFFMANWell, we say it with our cameras. We say it with, you know, the work we do and a young woman named Rachel Beth Anderson shot that scene and she did an incredibly amazing job because, when you watch the film, you see this -- I think, you experience this empathy with this woman and, you know, at the very end of the scene, she pushes in just a touch and almost to say, "I understand what you're saying. I feel what you're saying." And, for me, it's a beautiful moment.
NNAMDIFred, what do you typically say to those people you're engaging with about why it's important for them to talk to you, to share their story?
ABRAHAMSThe first point is to keep expectations low, you know, I don't want to tell somebody that this is going to immediately address their suffering and then fail. That's the worst thing we can do. So we try and be honest and the important thing is to get the facts into the public domain, let people know, that's the first step. And then we devise recommendations on how we think the situation can be improved.
ABRAHAMSSometimes it's immediate, something that can be done tomorrow, sometimes it's long term, changing a law, changing a policy that can take months and even years. But we try and give some positive recommendations to improve the situation.
NNAMDIFred Abrahams is a special advisor for Human Rights Watch whose work is featured in the documentary film "E-TEAM." "E-TEAM" is in theaters and on Netflix on October 24, won an award for cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Also joining us, in studio, are the co-director and producer of "E-TEAM," Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How would you describe the level of trust you have in traditional news media that's covering war and conflict in places like Syria and Libya? How, in your view, does their job differ from those who may be investigating potential human rights abuses in those places, 800-433-8850?
NNAMDIKaty, Ross, Fred earlier talked about the distinction between what he does and what people who are journalists do, how would you compare the work that this investigative team does in places like Libya and Syria to the work that you may be doing as filmmakers or what reporters may be doing, as journalists? Is the nature of the story their trying to share with the rest of the world, their mission in a way -- any way, different from yours?
CHEVIGNYOh, I don’t think Ross and I believe that our mission is as noble as what -- the work that the "E-TEAM" does. So we're documenting the work of people who are spending everyday working on human rights abuses. And Ross and I are more approaching it from the perspective of storytelling, how can we bring this story to light in the most dynamic, emotional, compelling way possible?
CHEVIGNYAnd then through that, we hope that people will be drawn in. One of the things we tried to do was to spend time with the "E-TEAM" members at home and really get a, kind of, intimacy with them, where you get to know them as people and bring out some of the humor, some of the lighter moments, some of the joy that happens, even in the most difficult work.
NNAMDIWell, one of the reviewers said that, because of this film and the world we live in today, you showed them, at home, in situations where some of their co-workers are not even that familiar with them and now the public gets to know what they're lives are like at home. But what concerns do Human Rights Watch have about your team imbedding with theirs? Did they ever express, to you, worries about whether a camera crew would hinder an investigation?
KAUFFMANWell, over the years, other filmmakers have approached Human Rights Watch and we're the first filmmakers to be granted, you know, total access to the Emergency's Team. We went in, very clearly, and told them if we were going to do a film, we would have to have total creative control, it'd be an independent film and we would show the organization warts and all. And much to their credit, they signed off, and I think they were very courageous in letting an independent film crew have total access.
NNAMDIWell, they're courageous in what they do every day. Fred, what would you say is your core mission as an investigator?
ABRAHAMSThere are a few but the -- I'd say the main one, for us, is to get the facts straight, because in a war all sides are trying to spin the reality. And human rights has become a political tool, you know. You -- we, as a group, are the victim of some violation. And so our job is to cut through that and present it in some sort of factual way. Are there serious allegations? Who is doing it? Who's being victimized and who are the perpetrators?
ABRAHAMSIn the long run, one of our key goals is accountability and this notion that, you can get away with a crime. And one of my colleagues says, you know, you commit a murder in the United States and you can go away for life, you commit genocide and you're scot-free. And I think that that's true, that's a horrible paradox in our world today. We try and break that down.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here is Jean Marie in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEAN MARIEOh, hello. Yes, my name is Jean Marie and I've been concerned about the coverage in Syria from the beginning because I noticed that Human Rights Watch and most journalists covering the situation are 100 percent of the time reporting from and from a position of being embedded with the anti-Assad forces. And I'm in touch every day with friends in Syria because I lived in Syria for a few -- was a native from there, and they can't, they say to me, whatever you see in the news, it's just not true. You know, it's just so different here on the ground.
JEAN MARIEAnd so I just wondered about that aspect that you are giving a pretty biased perspective on what is supposed to be a civil war.
NNAMDIHow do you respond to that, Fred?
ABRAHAMSWhenever someone is watching or reading the news either from journalism or also from human rights -- watching human rights groups, please consider how they've conducted that research. And if an investigator is embedded with one side then you should take that into account. And I think any good professional is also going to relay that in their reporting to say, I've had access to XY and not to Z. So it's true that the perspective we have on these things is going to give you one side.
ABRAHAMSBut the role in the job of a proper professional, whether it's journalism or human rights groups, is to then go to the other side. And we endeavor to do that at all times, always try and confront the alleged perpetrators and give them a chance to respond. And also in a war -- and this is the key -- is to cover abuses by armed groups, by governments, by everyone. There's no right and wrong. All parties to the conflict are beholden to the same law.
NNAMDIJean Marie, thank you very much for your call. Ross, James Foley, the journalist who was beheaded on camera by ISIS earlier this year was one of the people who shot the footage that made this film. He was captured working on another project but how has what happened to him shaped your perspective both for the story you were trying to tell and the experience you had trying to tell it?
KAUFFMANI mean, it's obviously an extremely horrible thing. I think about all the journalists and people who go into these areas and the risk that they take. Through this project I've gotten to meet a lot of different people, conflict photographers, news people, human rights activists. And the work that they do, it's not only noble, they're not only courageous but they are putting their lives on the line, sometimes every day.
NNAMDIWere there moments, Katy, particularly when you were filming in Syria when you felt you might be getting too close to danger? People who watch will see we're not traveling with a large entourage or with heavy security.
CHEVIGNYWell, we were lucky in that because we were a small crew, just one person traveling, typically Ross, sometimes Rachel, sometimes Jim, with the E-Team in Syria and Libya, we were in a situation where we were following the security protocols of Human Rights Watch, which are quite strict. And so one of the things that we frequently talk about is how the kind of danger that even the E-Team's in or following the E-Team, it's nothing like the danger that people on the ground are in where they really can't leave at the end of a week or two of doing some human rights research. So that's always on our mind.
NNAMDIIn the film, the E-Team is investigating potential human rights abuses by the Assad government. To what degree were any of your concerns about safety driven by how you related to, well, other sides, concerns about rebels you may have interacted with?
KAUFFMANThe E-Team is very -- they're very careful about making sure they really talk to both sides. And they had very good relationships with the rebels. It was very clear from the onset that that's part of the technique is to try to really make sure you know both sides and be able to really examine all the abuses that are happening.
NNAMDIFred, one of your formative experiences in this line of work came when you investigated the violence that took place in Kosovo in the late '90s. You testified at the Hague years afterward when Slobodan Milosevic stood trial for war crimes, literally interacting with him face to face. Few people who do this kind of work get to see things through to this kind of point. What was that experience like for you and how did it affect how you now view your work?
ABRAHAMSWell, we talk about it in -- among my colleagues Anya, Peter how they all wish they could have their Milosevic moment in court. And believe me, their lists of individuals is pretty long. So to have that opportunity is once in a lifetime -- or hopefully not, hopefully not, but it was by far the most gratifying moment of my human rights work because you can face the person in a court of law.
ABRAHAMSAnd in terms of going forward, the experience was incredibly valuable because I underwent cross examination by him, but in other cases as well by professional lawyers. And that made my investigative methodology much tighter because I anticipated the questions. As I always, in the field, think if I were being cross examined now then what's that extra question I would ask to make sure I dot my Is and cross Ts? And that makes the work much better.
NNAMDIHave a clip of you testifying before the Hague during the trial.
INTERROGATORBut the question is, do you make a distinction between somebody who is defending himself from terrorism or is carrying out an aggression against an independent state that is resolving its own problems and not jeopardizing anybody else? Do you draw a distinction of that kind?
ABRAHAMSLet me make one thing clear. The question is not whether you can confront an insurgency. It's how you confront that insurgency. And our evidence is overwhelming that the forces of the Serbian police and the Yugoslav army specifically and purposely targeted civilians.
NNAMDIFred Abrahams testifying before the Hague Commission. After you have been in very dangerous situations moments after atrocities have been committed there, I was surprised to find that you were actually nervous in having to testify before the Hague?
ABRAHAMSYeah, I mean, well look, when you're doing this work, you know, you get into the zone, if I can use that word. And you want to maximize your time, get the information and get it out to process and produce. And this was different. You know, this was presenting it in such a formal chamber that is documented for eternity. And, don't forget, five yards away from the guy, the dictator, the butcher of the Balkans, the man you hold responsible mostly, not exclusively, for these atrocities. And that's a tad intimidating.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Joseph in Arlington, Va. Joseph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSEPHThank you. I just wanted to start by saying thank you to all the panelists for your important work. Thank you so much for what you do. I'm curious if the folks that put the documentary together could say a few words about the challenges financing a project like this.
NNAMDIAh, the documentarians' favorite topic.
NNAMDIHere is Katy.
CHEVIGNYOh, it's so hard. It's just so hard. It was -- you know, I -- Ross and I naively thought it was going to be easier to raise money for this film because we thought the topic was so worthy and the E-Team was so fantastic, and Ross and I had made films before. And, I mean, how naïve we were. It was actually very hard to raise money for it until the end when we were almost done and we had something to show. So that was -- you know, it's the same old story.
NNAMDIIt helps to have something to show. Every time we've discussed independent filmmakers on this broadcast the financing is what takes up a lot of the conversation. Before we go, Fred, there's a moment in the film when Anya is confronting skeptical members of the Russian press who insist that her report from Syria is a sham. Has also been Israel's rejection of preliminary Human Rights Watch findings that it committed war crimes during the recent Gaza fighting. What goes through your mind when you see that kind of resistance to what you feel are being put forward as facts about something that really did occur?
ABRAHAMSWe get it all the time. You know, whenever we criticize a government or an armed group then we are accused of being biased, that we are a U.S. organization, a western organization. And our answer is very simple. Well, check out our website because we produce reams of information about human rights violations by the United States government, for instance, by west European governments, for instance. And the job is to look at them all in a balanced way. I think the record holds up and we try to maintain our independence that way and through that our effectiveness.
NNAMDIFred Abrahams is a special advisor for Human Rights Watch whose work is featured in the documentary film "E-Team." Fred, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIRoss Kauffman is the co-director, producer and director of photography of "E-Team." Ross, thank you for joining us.
KAUFFMANThank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd Katy Chevigny is co-director and producer of "E-Team." Katy, thanks a lot.
NNAMDIIt was a pleasure.
NNAMDILet me take a short break. When we come back, a decade of documentary films in D.C. and a new festival celebrating the films and filmmakers that call the nation's capitol home. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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