‘E-Team’ follows human-rights watchdogs

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
The new documentary "E-Team" follows Human RIghts Watch researchers into conflict zones. It will screens Monday at the Aspen Institute, with filmmakers Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman on hand for a post-screening discussion.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go…

What: ‘E-Team’

Who: Presented by the Aspen Institute and Aspen Film

When: Monday, Aug. 4, 7 p.m.

Where: Paepcke Auditorium


Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report concluding that Ukrainian government forces have been violating international and humanitarian law by firing unguided missiles into civilian areas. The report made headlines around the world and was compiled from on-the-ground testimonials and research gathered by the organization’s Emergencies Team.

How such reports are put together, and four globe-trotting activists who do the research, are the subject of the new documentary “E-Team,” by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, which screens Monday at the Aspen Institute.

The filmmakers were embedded with the Human Rights Watch e-team from 2011 through 2013. The film follows the e-team into Libya as they investigate mass slaughter of prisoners under Moammar Gadhafi in the early days of the country’s civil war and as they smuggle themselves into Syria to document alleged government airstrikes and chemical attacks against civilians.

In some of the most brutal conflict zones on earth, the film shows four team members — Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter — gathering evidence and interviews in the hopes of finding the truth and holding perpetrators responsible in international court. Filmed with handheld cameras in the hot zones, it’s an immersive and unflinching piece of filmmaking.

“It really is a new , and it makes the work potentially more rewarding, to know that it will end up having a longer and more robust life than we could have hoped for before.”
Katy Chevigny

The film contrasts the turmoil and tragedy of the field footage with portraits of the e-team members at home, aiming to capture who they are as human beings and what makes them tick.

“It’s not like some light went off or that’s what I wanted to be since I was a little boy,” Peter says at one point between fact-finding missions. “It’s just what I do. It’s about fighting against bad people, and that gives you a rush. It’s nice to be on the right side.”

The filmmakers said in an interview that they were familiar with Human Rights Watch’s work, but seven years ago, when they met the investigators over dinner, they realized they had a remarkable story on their hands.

“What really got us excited about the project was when we met Anna and Ole and Fred and Peter,” Chevigny said. “At the end of that dinner, Ross and I felt like we had met some extraordinary people that would make great characters in a movie.”

The activists granted the filmmakers complete access to both their work in the field and their home lives. It marked the first time that Human Rights Watch allowed independent filmmakers to embed with it.

“We were upfront that we were going to show the organization, warts and all,” Kauffman said. “Much to their credit, they signed on and were pretty courageous in giving us total access.”

The film captures the investigators’ unflappable poise, whether they’re interviewing a man who survived a massacre by hiding under a pile of bodies or collecting eyewitness accounts in the fresh rubble of an airstrike.

“They kind of hide how amazing the work is because it seems effortless, because they don’t crack under pressure,” Chevigny said. “If they were having emotional outbursts, it would be more apparent how challenging the work is.”

The film flashes back at one point from the current conflicts to the genocide in Kosovo in the late 1990s, showing Human Rights Watch researcher Fred Abrahams testifying against Slobodan Milosevic at the Serbian leader’s war-crimes trial at the Hague. The section displays the potential impact the e-team’s current work could have in the future.

“I felt like I had a responsibility to the people who told me their stories,” Abrahams says, “to get a day in court.”

Netflix acquired “E-Team” for distribution after it premiered this winter at the Sundance Film Festival and this fall will release it in select theaters and on its streaming services. “E-Team” is among a handful of “Netflix Originals” the online film powerhouse has picked up for distribution.

But even before it got into the distribution game, the streaming service also has been a game-changing force for documentaries in recent years. Over the past year, for instance, films available in the Netflix queue like “The Square” and “Blackfish” have been a part of the national — and international — cultural conversation in a way that documentaries haven’t been before (other than the occasional “Hoop Dreams” or Michael Moore offering).

In 2005, when Kauffman’s “Born Into Brothels” won the Academy Award for best documentary, it was little-seen compared with the audience that documentaries have since found on Netflix.

“Because of Netflix’s growing reach both in the U.S. and overseas, we’re talking about millions of viewers, not thousands — which is usually the kinds of numbers that documentarians can dream of,” Chevigny said. “That wasn’t possible 20 years ago or even 10 years ago.”

Rather than being screened in a few cities, at special screenings at colleges or in series like the Aspen Institute and Aspen Film’s New Views and then going to DVD, documentaries today are at the tips of all of our fingers.

“It really is a new opportunity, and it makes the work potentially more rewarding,” Chevigny said, “to know that it will end up having a longer and more robust life than we could have hoped for before.”

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