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'E-Team' Directors on Filming in Dangerous Places

By Tom White

Human Rights Watch was founded during the Cold War as Helsinki Watch, as a means to monitor Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Over the next few decades, Human Rights Watch expanded its influence and mission to defend the rights of individuals worldwide, and its work to monitor human rights violations has taken its boldest representatives to some of the most dangerous places on the planet. One such group, the Emergencies Team, or E-Team, is the subject of Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny's E-Team, which is currently screening in selected theaters across the country and streaming on Netflix.

Documentary talked to Kauffman and Chevigny about casting their four main characters, working with two cinematographers, collaborating as directors and negotiating the difficult balance between parenthood and filmmaking.

E-Team members Ole Solvang (right) and Anna Neistat in Syria. Courtesy of Netflix

Documentary: You two managed to find four very compelling and intrepid characters to further your story. How did you find them? How did you present your project to them that convinced them that they wanted to be on board?

Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny: Several years ago, we were looking for a long-form documentary to work on together. We had done short-form work together—at times Ross would shoot for Katy while she was directing; other times Ross would direct and Katy would produce. So we already knew that we worked well together and were excited to find the right movie to collaborate on.

We knew a little bit about Human Rights Watch through their film festival—Ross had shown Born Into Brothels in 2004 and Katy had shown Deadline—but we didn't know a lot about the organization. Through some contacts with friends, we were told about the E-Team, or Emergencies Team, a small group of investigators who are some of the first people on the ground when human rights violations occur.

So we arranged a meeting with the E-Team and went out to dinner in Manhattan. It was sort of like a blind date.As soon as we met Anna [Neistat], Ole [Solvang], Peter [Bouckaert] and Fred [Abrahams], we knew we had four great characters—all of whom were passionate, intelligent, not the least bit self-righteous, and they all had great senses of humor. They were each fascinating in their own right and were from varied backgrounds. We felt that you couldn't write better characters for a movie.

Our pitch to them was simple: we wanted to make a great "movie." We were very clear with the E-Team that we didn't want to make a film that was just about the issues. Instead we were interesting in making an entertaining film that would not only highlight their work, but would also concentrate on them as characters. Their curiosity was aroused by the fact that we didn't want to make a film that just preached to the choir. We wanted to reach audiences that weren't aware of their work and who might learn something about human rights and the struggles of people around the world. In an effort to achieve this, not only did we travel with them into conflict zones, but we also went home with them—sleeping on their couches, spending time with them and their families. We were after intimacy and wanted our audience to get to know them not just as human rights investigators, but as real people that they could relate to.

There had been other filmmakers over the years who had tried to gain access to Human Rights Watch. We explained to the organization the kind of film we wanted to try to make. We were very clear that we were independent filmmakers, and that we would have to have creative control over the project and would take a "warts and all" approach, meaning that if we filmed material that didn't shine a very good light on the organization, we could use it as we saw fit. We knew that, in granting us access, the organization was taking a chance, and in the end, we were grateful that they took the plunge to let us film. It was brave of them to let independent filmmakers in! 

Katy Chevigny (left) and Ross Kuaffman filming at a Human Rights Watch event. Courtesy of Netflix

As human rights activists, your characters are, perhaps more so, journalists—and as Peter Boukaert puts it in the film, "criminal investigators." One can argue that you as documentary filmmakers embrace these roles as well. Talk about how the experience of making this film transformed how you would define what a documentary filmmaker is and does.

RK: I think I embrace whatever role each and every movie calls on us to be. I try to let the story not only dictate the style and tone of the film, but to a certain extent, my role in it. In the case of E-Team, you might say that Katy and I took on the roles of criminal investigators alongside the E-Team, documenting crimes against humanity and gathering evidence. At any moment in a film, I look at all the tools that I have and try to choose the right one for that moment in order to tell the best story.

KC: We are storytellers first and foremost. In some films that are more personal and delve deeply into the human psyche, we spend time exploring character. For other stories, maybe we take a more journalistic approach.  Whatever role or hat we have to put on to tell the story, that's the hat we use. In this film, we were deeply collaborative, and flexible, in order to leave space for the E-Team to do their work and to get the footage we needed to tell this multi-faceted story.

Peter Bouckaert (center), featured in E-Team. Courtesy of Netflix

Ross is one of three cinematographers on the film, along with Rachel Beth Anderson and the late James Foley. How did the three of you work together and with Katy in communicating the vision for the film? What did you learn from the other cinematographers about documentary cinematography that you didn't know before?

RK & KC: Finding other shooters to film in Syria and Libya was a huge challenge. We knew that our approach was radically different than that of most conflict-zone journalists and videographers. Luckily, we found two people who understood what we were after. From the moment of the film's inception, we knew this was a movie about our four main characters. The work they do, while integral to the story, is revealed through our characters.

As director of photography, Ross put together a style sheet and some excerpts of raw footage that he'd shot in Syria and Libya. These acted as a guide for Jim and Rachel. In communicating our vision of the film, we told them that this is a behind-the-scenes look at the work. While the usual approach might be to focus solely the investigations in the field, we were clear that what happens before and after the work is what we were really after. Our characters express themselves not only through the work, but also during those down times when most would normally turn off the camera. Intimate moments like eating breakfast at a safe house in Syria, Peter making fun of Fred in the Geneva airport, or Anya and Ole having dinner with their son Danya talking about the airstrikes in Aleppo were the moments we were looking for.


Anna is both bold and philosophical about the obvious danger that her work entails, particularly when you ask her about how her son feels about her work. Both of you became parents in the process of making this film—as did all four of your characters—and Ross in particular has worked in some very dangerous places. How has parenthood altered how you choose your projects?

RK: Parenthood and documentary filmmaking: It's a conundrum. I've never been an adventure-seeker. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. If there is a chance for me to be home with my 4-year-old son and wife, I'll take it. But as I've grown into being a father, I also realize that what I do matters more than ever. Whether it's a documentary or a narrative film, the work hopefully resonates with audiences with the goal always being to move people emotionally. I'm taking this more seriously than ever and I think parenthood has a lot to do with it. Not only do I want my son to look back at his father's work and be proud and do what I have to in order to make a living to support my family, but there's also a nagging feeling that in doing this work, I'm contributing something of value in a positive way for the future not only of my son, but for society as a whole. As for choosing projects, I am more selective about going to the far-off, very difficult places.

KC: It's true that Ross and I took on this project before we each had our kids—which is a good thing! Thank goodness we took the plunge to do it when we did. Once I had my daughter, it just reinforced how important teamwork is in making this film, both in front of and behind the camera. Of course, teamwork matters on any film, but now that we have kids, it's a dire necessity to have a solid team. Being a mom makes me think that for any and all future projects, I have be mindful to continue to work with people who are willing to share the burden of the filmmaking tasks. It was helpful that we all had kids, because we understood where each other were coming from and could take turns, in a sense, to get the film done.


You and Katy were directors on the film. Given that you both became parents during production, how did the two of you share the artistic responsibilities?

RK & KC: Two days after our first shoot in January 2011, Ross's son was born. Katy's daughter was born a little more than a year later, right in the middle of production.

Becoming parents definitely changed the dynamic of our filmmaking, not so much between ourselves, but how we engaged with our filmmaking team. We became much more dependent on our incredible producer, Marilyn Ness, to lead the way when Ross was off earning a living in Kenya on other jobs and when Katy was filming for Kartemquin in Washington, DC, while at the same time caring for her daughter. Time becomes a rare commodity when you start a family, and the ability to call on Marilyn and David Teague, our editor, to take up the slack when the two of us had absolutely no time to focus solely on the film, was integral to the success of E-Team.


The world that the E-Team is covering—particularly the world of ISIS—is an even more dangerous one than that depicted in the film. How are they able to continue their work, given the undeniable savagery of ISIS and other extremist groups in the region?

RK & KC: The emergence of ISIS in northern Syria and the increased kidnapping threat—-brought home to everybody by Jim Foley's tragic case—has made it too dangerous for the E-Team to conduct on-the-ground investigation in many areas. (That said, Fred Abrahams, one of the E-Team members, did investigate abuses in northern Iraq in September of 2014.) This is a situation that is not unique to northern Syria. Iran, North Korea and parts of Somalia are other places where it is too dangerous to work on the ground. Human Rights Watch deals with these situations by obtaining information in other ways. Members of the E-Team have been working in the refugee camps in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, interviewing people who have been fleeing ISIS-controlled areas. They have also done groundbreaking work analyzing satellite imagery, videos and photos, documenting in detail a number of ISIS mass executions and mass graves. Nothing can fully substitute conducting investigations on the ground, but there are other means of getting to the truth.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.