Interview: Brian Oakes, dir. Jim: The James Foley Story

19/08/14: brutal images of photojournalist James Wright Foley, murdered by Mohammed Emwazi, spread like wildfire across the globe, defining a watershed moment in the rise of Isis and their place in a sickened global consciousness. But that did not define the man.

Director Brian Oakes paints a deeply moving, intimate portrait of his childhood friend in Jim: The James Foley Story to reclaim his life from death. He sat down with CineVue’s Matthew Anderson to discuss legacy, family, the crucial role of conflict journalism and humanity even in the most dire of circumstances.

Matthew Anderson: Was Jim always a thrill-seeker?

Brian Oakes: Definitely. I’d known him since we were seven and we got into some trouble when we were teenagers as we all do. But Jim definitely had that gene, the one ingredient of our personality that pushes the limits of what you can do. When you get older that mentality transfers into maturity. It’s not recklessness but a physical courage of going the extra mile, the extra distance to experience something a little bit more intense. He definitely had that. That’s one of the ingredients a combat journalist needs, a physical courage and a sense of humanity to go to the frontline. Not a lot of people could do it.

MA: Did he ever tell you he felt out of his depth or that he had underestimated the danger?

BO: He never expressed that to me. But he also wasn’t the only one there; there was a whole contingent of journalists and a real community. He loved telling stories of civilians and revolutionaries and was really passionate about giving voices to people who were being oppressed. That was his real MO.

MA: He was what you would define as a ‘humanist’.

BO: Absolutely. When he was in Syria there’s a scene in the film where he raises money for an ambulance. That, for me, goes beyond journalism. But at the same time it treads this idealism as well because it’s countered by the fact that Clare [Gillis, a fellow journalist], says: “You’re intentions are good but, you know, that ambulance might get confiscated and turned into a weapon.” Jim didn’t really think about that stuff but ultimately, she was right – it was blown up.

MA: What was it that gave you the strength, what spurred you on to make the film so soon after such a disastrous event?

BO: A combination of many things. When you lose someone, when someone close to you dies – a family member, a friend – you get very protective of their life, their legacy and how they are going to be remembered. For Jim it was this global event so that feeling was escalated beyond measure. Here’s a close friend who never wanted to be in the public eye, now an icon for a terrorist group. He’s become a symbol for a propaganda piece, a pawn almost. So, knowing that, and having this feeling about legacy, I wanted to reclaim that image of Jim. You could call it fighting back or recontextualising it, changing the narrative of what its original intention was. An opportunity to tell people who this man was, what he was doing and how this was the opposite of what his intention was. I wanted to take on that responsibility. As much as Jim wanted to give a voice to the people, this film can give Jim his voice and bring those stories to the surface. To tell people that this is what he was passionate about and that he’s not a symbol of propaganda, that he’s actually a symbol of empathy.

MA: When something so tragic happens why does so often how a person departs the world becomes the focus, rather than an entire life?

BO: We live in a world of Twitter feeds, soundbites and 30 second clips and this is how people understand the world. I don’t want my two kids to be raised in a world where we’re just a filter. It’s important to be able to contextualise stories and understand that backstories are not black and white, that there’s a lot of grey. We can have empathy for people if we better understand what’s going on and that’s why I hope documentaries don’t fade away because if you make a good, honest documentary, you can really inform people.

MA: As well as reconfiguring or rescuing Jim from being a media tool, was expressing yourself so openly and honestly a form of grieving as well? Was the process helpful?

BO: I think in a way, yeah. It was a way for me to…I don’t know if it was grieving, more a desire to understand, and this idea of fighting back and getting an honest story out there because I don’t know if I’ll ever have ‘closure’ – it’s a tough word – but I do think finding out more about what happened was a way for me to process it. I can’t believe the Foley family were able to find the strength and courage to talk about something like this.

MA: Was there resistance [from participating] from their side initially?

BO: There was, mostly from Jim’s parents, John and Diane. I think when I explained to them why I wanted to do it and what my intentions were they said let’s let Brian do this because somebody is going to, Brian knew him, he has access and can tell this story.

MA: As a filmmaker was it beneficial to be so emotionally and personally close to the subject matter?

BO: I think so – you need access and you need to be truly connected to the subject. You’re going to spend the next two-three years of your life telling this story so if you’re not connected and truly invested in the subject matter it is very difficult to do.

MA: Other than Michael and his wife, who sometimes appear together, all of the interviews were done individually. Why was that chosen?

BO: I think double interviews are tricky when you have more than one person speaking because having someone next to you, especially if it’s a family member, will infiltrate your ability to speak about what’s really on your mind or you react to what someone else is saying. Unless I am requested to have more than one person in an interview, I take one because you can just really focus more.

MA: There’s a lot of love for Jim in the film in the way people speak of him but there’s a fair bit of anger, resentment as well. As his friend, did you ever feel that way towards him?

BO: Absolutely. The question of why did Jim go back, why did he continue to go into these conflict zones is the thesis of the whole film. It’s a question a lot of people had, not only friends and family but also general public; there were a lot of accusatory remarks. Answering that was really important. It adds another layer of why I wanted to make the film because it’s really hard for us, who are not conflict journalists, to understand why these folks go into these areas. Why do you put your life in danger for these stories?

Through Nicole Tung, Claire Gillis, Manu Brabo and Zac Baillie, freelance journalists who were colleagues and kind of surrogates for Jim, they get to the heart of that. There’s a kind of PTSD issue which is similar to what soldiers experience; these journalists see atrocities on humankind. You photograph it and tell those stories and it becomes a really harsh reality. When you leave that world and go into the safety of your home in London or the United States, wherever it may be, that becomes a hard transition to make because nothing is real. You hear people complaining about not having internet service or their phone dying, who gives a shit? They know that they’re putting their friends and family through a hardship yet they’re so drawn to this career, this passion; it’s a real conflict, a balancing act.

MA: There’s a brief sequence where you reference previous wars. Did Jim feel a responsibility of carrying on that mantle of conflict coverage?

BO: The idea of historical pictures and footage spawned from Nicole. It’s another layer of why they do what they do, and why they go back. She said we have a responsibility as journalists to document history because if we don’t have images of conflict how do we move forward as a civilisation? How do we recognise it and counter it? What if we didn’t have images from WWII or we didn’t have video from Vietnam? How would we be able to know what happened?

There’s the old saying, if you don’t learn from history you’re doomed to repeat it. And that connects into that whole theory – We know history because these people are telling it. Claire Gillis has one of my favourite lines in the film: “How can you say he shouldn’t have been there? How do you even know what ‘there’ is? Because he told you.” It’s a really great way to answer that question.

MA: Midway through the film – and about two years into the Syrian conflict – the tide begins to turn against the way journalists were perceived by the general public. Even they began to question whether they were a help or a hindrance.

BO: Absolutely. I think they see the tide changing; they saw foreign fighters starting to come into the country. That’s a really important part of the story because as a journalist you need to be able to recognise that landscape.

MA: The whole last section of the film is given to the extended captivity: that must have been difficult for you but at the same time enlightening?

BO: It was cathartic in a way because I went into those interviews expecting the worst. All the bad, the torture details. But really those interviews tell how humans were put into a situation such as they were with 19 men in one room and ask how do you adapt to that situation? How do you become almost like a professional hostage? Finding a way to survive. There’s a lot of humanity in that story where they support and help each other, a lot of it is quite funny so I enjoyed that because every day wasn’t horrible, they were able to get on.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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