It was one of the largest media events to have happened during 2014.
On August 19th of that year, a video, which was quickly taken down but not before it went viral across the internet, was uploaded to YouTube. It was a four-minute-and-forty-second announcement of the coming of ISIS, and the horrifying execution of American journalist James Foley. It was the beginning to the reign of terror that still grips the world to this day. I remember watching in horror the CNN coverage, standing in the middle of the AUT newsroom as a post-graduate student in journalism.
So even before heading into this documentary I knew it was going to be a rough ride.
Directed by Brian Oakes, a childhood friend of Foley’s, the documentary is an intimate chronicle of James Foley the individual. Aptly, the very beginning of the film opens with a clear declaration: the video of Foley’s actual execution has no place here. The orange-suited martyr forced to recite a prepared speech does not belong here. Instead, with a great deal of cooperation from the Foley family and intimate interviews with both his colleagues, as well as journalists he was interned with, this is a snapshot of a kind and gentle individual. One the media aren’t privy to.
The first half of the film navigates through his childhood, his relationship with his family – and most importantly – a showcase of the endless drive of an individual who never quite fitted in with our society’s expectation of success on any measure of the scale. The drive that took him first to Libya, where he was captured and held in detention for 44 days, and then to Syria, where he was kidnapped, and never went home again.
I write that sentence not with disdain, but rather a sort of romantic admiration. To have gone through the ordeal one time is enough for most, and yet to have the stomach to return and risk the possibilities for a second would boggle most people’s minds. To be fair, you certainly wouldn’t be amiss if you expressed disdain at Foley risking fate twice and expecting a better outcome, but Foley’s willingness to place himself in harm’s way is not from any position of fame-seeking or self-delusions of grandeur. No, it was the hope he could change something.
With rugged good looks and a ‘chin that you could cut cheese with’ (said by one of his colleagues), Foley came late to the world of journalism. After a stalled teaching career at a juvenile detention facility, it was there that he realised his passion for journalistic pursuits. It was a way for him to help others tell their stories, and to let the world know what goes on beyond the comfortable bubbles which surround the average Westerner’s experience of life.
The second half of the film is less joyous. Filled with narration from fellow captive journalists, it’s an unbridled and certainly less heard of story about being a Western journalist held prisoner. They tried to make do – being so hungry and having to resort to fruit peels, with orange peels almost like candy. Naming their most horrific and terrifying guards after the Beatles. Making a board game out of raw materials and having an almost unspeakable kind of fun so they could stay ‘normal’. And then, there was the torture – not so much physical, but the mind games the guards played.
And yet throughout it all, James Foley was almost like a flickering light for their entire group. One of the captives, who hated being called ‘bro’, gladly welcomed the title when it came from Foley. Sharing his food, his clothes, and making sure everyone else was alright even after he received the harshest beatings, Foley gained immense respect from the European photojournalists also held captive.
Near the end, and even though the film doesn’t come and say it outright, there’s hints the blame should square on the American government. Surely, they could’ve done more. Surely, they could’ve tried to negotiate, regardless of whether it would’ve mattered or not. And most importantly – all the other European photojournalists were eventually released. But not James Foley, because he was, simply said, American. And apparently, that’s all it takes.
This film is important. I write this not because I am a journalist, nor is it due to the surprising amount of things I have in common with Foley. No, it is because each and every day when you wake up, there, ready, is presented to you the events of the day. Information gathered by individuals whose job it is to bear witness and let you know what’s happening, regardless of whether it’s the conflicts around the world or the results of a local body council meeting. There is a human element to the gathering of this information.
It’s a rough ride, but one that should be taken by every individual who takes what news media does for granted. It won’t be pretty. You’ll feel sullied and depressed. But it’s worth it.
Directed by Brian Oakes. Awards: Audience Award (US Documentary), Sundance Film Festival 2016. Screening at the NZ International Film Festival, 120 minutes.
- Fascinating story
- Enlightening subject
- Educational on conflict journalism
- You'll bawl your eyes off
- Images of violence and war