UK Release : 25 March 2014 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival, London)
This year, Human Rights Watch puts itself under the microscope, with this documentary looking at the work in the field, and the personal lives, of the investigation E (‘Emergency Teams’) teams who dutifully head out into zones of conflict to gather evidence of war crimes and suffering. Filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny recently embedded themselves and their handheld cameras with four members of these E-teams, as they journeyed to the front lines in Syria and Libya to gather mounting evidence of atrocities by government and opposing forces in those recent (and sadly still ongoing) conflicts.
The documentary shows how gathering evidence, through lengthy and emotionally raw interviews with victims and witnesses, and investigation of crime spots, weapon depots and wrecked homes, is only the start of the battle. Once this evidence is gathered, the same E-Team members are often personally involved back home in trying to get their documented evidence into the hands of media outlets, policy makers, and international tribunals to try to trigger some kind of response.
One of the most intriguing things about the E-Team members who we are embedded with - Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter - is how oddly laid back and normal they seem given they spend a large percentage of working lives in war zones. It is also interesting to see how each approaches their work and home life differently. Anna and Ole actually are married to each other, seemingly able balance a home life in Paris with a son alongside regular excursions to life threatening situations. When we first meet them they are packing for a trip to Syria in their flat, with little noticeable extra tension than one would expect from a holiday. Soon though, in one of the films tenser moments, we are watching them get smuggled over the border between Turkey and Syria courtesy of a trusted contact there. Hunkering down in cars, stumbling over barbed wire fences, hiding under burka’s, this is the average working day for Anna and Ole.
Anna herself is a fiery Russian expat with a sly sense of humour, making for a fitting contrast to the more calmer Ole. Following their Syria investigations, we see Anna working the phones, setting up press conference and TV interviews back at home and in her native Russia (Russia being an Assad ally). Comfortable and strident in front of the camera and in the field, Anna seems to be a natural and tireless campaigner. More circumspect and haunted is the older investigator Fred: one of his baptisms of fire, as he recounts to the camera, was as an investigator of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, and he sat opposite Slobodan Milosevic in his war crimes trial at the Hague.
The flitting of the camera team between Geneva to Berlin, Syria to Paris, reminds us that working for Human Rights Watch is a global task with what must be an exhausting travel requirement. And that is not counting the physically and emotionally draining work in the field in between. The investigations the camera team show us are often highly disturbing, and because HRW working practices demand multiple corroborations, the investigations in the field cannot simply dip in and out, they need to interview multiple victims and corroborating witnesses, as well as comb the terrain often while actual fighting is going on around them. In one section of the film the camera team follows Anna and Ole as they come across an entire block in a Syrian suburb, utterly demolished by air strikes. As we see the sea of bricks and rubble in front of the E-Team, it is hard to know imagine where they should begin.
If the film does have flaws, it is partly in this switching of focus to show the home and work lives of the E-Teams. Time spent outside of the war zones means less time showing us the hard graft of how E-Teams work, which feels more like the real ‘meat’ of the matter here given the subject matter. It would've been fascinating to learn more of the ins and outs of how E-teams are inserted and extracted, and the working practices. It also only briefly touches on the issue of what HRW's position should be if Western governments take its evidence as justification for military interventions, and what the E-Team members feel about what governments do with their evidence.
E-Team is too short to really engage on a deep level with the work and history of HRW, but it is well-shot and contains some moments of raw emotional power, particularly those involving the victims of atrocities face to face with the camera. It is hard not to come away with respect for the unassuming investigators, who spend their days gathering the kinds of devastating evidence that we only read about in the papers.