DVD Review: Jim: The James Foley Story


A life should be never defined by death. Not least one extinguished as a tool for extremist propaganda. In presenting heartrending documentary Jim: The James Foley Story in such an intimate, personal manner, director Brian Oakes seeks to reclaim the existence of his childhood friend from the unspeakably brutal images that filled screens across the world on 19 August 2014. It attempts to restore humanity to a subject of truly sickening headline news, and succeeds in painting a loving portrait of a man whose unimaginable bravery, unerring dedication to his work and awe- inspiring philanthropy shines through in every frame, along with a dazzling, disarming smile.

Though Oakes’ doc champions the plight of an unbreakable human spirit, it is impossible to escape from what was a watershed moment in the evolution of ISIS. Kneeling in an orange jumpsuit, photojournalist James Wright Foley delivers with unwavering defiance a pre-prepared speech of words not his own. What followed next is mercifully not presented in any form here. Oakes’ film expressly ‘does not show the execution of Jim’ but it looms large in the mind as a sickening elephant in the imagination nonetheless. A leaden weight in the pit of one’s stomach, it impacts through its absence in a film which is galling, infuriating and sincerely, surprisingly moving in retelling a life of meandering, principled misadventure. The participation of Foley’s parents and siblings is stirring, and commendable, given how soon interviews with them were conducted after the devastation of his passing.

Bleary eyes, fragmented speech and lumps in throats all stifle tears, telling with stiff-jawed stoicism the concern they harboured for Jim’s endeavours which, after a decade of non-starting teaching posts and other dead ends, found his journalistic calling take him to Libya as Gaddafi’s grip on the nation was relinquished. Freelance colleagues recall, with a mixture of pride and anguished sadness, the free-spirited Foley’s adrenaline-fuelled thirst for danger, combining fearlessness and naivete in worrying equal measure, which on one occasion would result in the death of a South African colleague and his capture with two others. A 44-day hostage situation ended with their release but the ire of his loved ones is still palpable, even in hindsight: “Why would you put your life in danger? Why?” Not heeding his family’s angst, the lessons of his own experience, and concurrent advice to students at his former university of the perils of conflict journalism, Jim returns to the Middle East and Syria in 2012.

Largely, if not entirely, admiring his intrepid determination, here grief-fed indignation will eventually melt to respect for a man who remained true to himself and his values. Where Jim: The James Foley Story really resonates emotionally is in a final third which is almost a separate film unto itself. Through the testimony – and reconstructed visuals – of other journalists held with Jim, the debilitating truths of their captivity accentuate the level of suffering inflicted. Leading them much like a band of his own disciples, Foley’s spirit soars far away from the walls that restrained them. Oakes’ doc separates the man from the mediatised martyr, presenting him as a shining example of free speech and kindness.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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