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SF Premiere of E-Team: A Rare Look at Human Rights Investigators

Have you ever thought about investigating war crimes? Gathering evidence for international tribunals? Advocating for policy change or government intervention in ongoing conflicts? If you have, or are just curious what it’s like for those who do, then we have the movie for you.

E-TEAM, a new feature-length immersive documentary focused E-TEAM posteron four Human Rights Watch Emergency Team members, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and will be screening in San Francisco at the Presidio Theatre for one week October 31 – November 6 (tickets on sale Monday, October 27, mark your calendar!).

The film offers a rare look at the work and lives of human rights investigators, following the team members as they investigate human rights abuses in Syria and Libya as well as into their homes and personal lives.

BAIL had the opportunity to connect with the film’s co-directors – Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny – who provided some additional insight into the film and their work. If you can’t make it to the Presidio for the week-long run, you can also get E-TEAM on Netflix starting October 24.

Ross Kauffman is the director, producer, cinematographer and co-editor of BORN INTO BROTHELS, winner of the Oscar® for Best Documentary in 2005. Working in the film industry for over two decades, he has filmed around the world from the war zones of Libya to the front lines of Kashmir. He was also part of the lensing team on the documentary series HALF THE SKY (inspired by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s groundbreaking book).

Katy Chevigny (@mightychevs) is an award-winning filmmaker and a co-founder of Big Mouth Productions and Arts Engine. She directed ELECTION DAY (2007) and DEADLINE (2004), an investigation into Illinois Governor George Ryan’s commutation of death sentences. Katy has produced a dozen feature-length documentaries including, most recently, PUSHING THE ELEPHANT and 1971. 

Thank you to both of you for taking time to tell us some more about the film and your work. Where did the idea for E-TEAM come from?

This film got started with a dinner that we had in 2008 with the members of Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Team, or E-Team, namely, Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter. We had been considering making a film about these guys, but it was only after we spent some time getting to know them as people that we felt convinced that these four investigators would make incredible characters in a movie. We felt that with characters as funny, smart and interesting as these people, we might be able to make a film about the fascinating work of human rights investigation that could appeal to a broad audience.

How long did it take you to shoot the film? With the ongoing conflict and violations, especially in Syria, how did you decide when to stop filming?

We shot the film over 2.5 years, from early 2011 through the fall of 2013. With a film like this, where you’re following unfolding events and you have no idea what is going to happen, there is often no natural end to the filming. We were lucky to be collaborating with an incredible editor, David Teague and an amazing producer, Marilyn Ness, and we spent most of 2013 working together to shape the film out of the footage that we had. We were looking for events in their personal lives and in Syria to develop in a way that could work as an ending to the film, and once we felt we had that, we called it a wrap.


How did the partnership with Human Rights Watch and the four subjects come about, did you know you wanted to follow them specifically or did you consider other groups?

From the very beginning of our discussions about this film, we were very clear with Human Rights Watch that the film needed to be a completely independent entity. This meant that we needed to be able to show the work, warts and all, and that we would have complete editorial control of the film. We weren’t interested in making a film that just showcased the work of a respected organization.

Fortunately for us, the leadership at HRW understood that our independent access was critical. As a result, we had an extraordinary relationship with Human Rights Watch. They put an enormous amount of trust in the two of us right at the beginning of the process. When we insisted on having editorial control of the film, and on having unfettered access to the E-TEAM members, and HRW agreed. We weren’t shopping around for a human rights group to film. We had dinner with the E-TEAM and something clicked for all of us and that was it. We were off to the races.

What was Human Rights Watch’s reaction when you first proposed the idea? What did they need to agree to the project? What did you need?

We had simple requirements of each other, based on trust and mutual respect. We assured HRW that we would never get in the way of the work of the E-TEAM and that we would under no circumstances include any footage that would jeopardize any witness or human rights activist on the ground. That was a hard and fast rule that we agreed to immediately. They, in turn, gave us unprecedented access to their work. E-TEAM marks the first time that HRW has allowed an independent film to be made about them.

Did you have any concerns about putting any of the people in the film on screen, particularly the victims and activists on the ground?

eteam_pds_009_hWe operated with very strict protocols about how to handle the safety of those we filmed. First of all, we only filmed those witnesses who consented to be filmed at the time we were on the ground. Then, we did a second round of consent verification when we completed the film, in which the E-TEAM went back and asked each witness and activist if they still felt safe being included in the film. Only then did we include their stories in the film.

How does the killing of James Foley, who worked with you on this film, and other journalists impact the way you think about shooting in the field and safety for yourselves and your team?

James Foley was one of three cinematographers who shot footage for E-TEAM. Ross Kauffman was the director of photography for the film and shot in Libya, Syria, and all of the home scenes with our characters. Rachel Beth Anderson filmed on two missions in Syria with Anya and Ole. And James Foley filmed Peter in 2011 at the end of the Libyan civil war when the rebels killed Gaddafi. Some of the footage Jim shot during this trip is included in our film E-TEAM, such as the scene of the weapons scattered across the field, and Peter talking to rebels during the celebrations at the end of the war.

People like Jim and members of the E-TEAM put themselves in harm’s way to report horrific crimes every day. About a year after he filmed for us, Jim was captured in Syria while reporting on a separate assignment. We learned that he was missing and we’ve spent the past year and a half-hoping he might be found and released. Tragically, this past August, Jim was executed by ISIS forces. We hope the film honors both his work and his memory.

What was the most challenging part of filming or editing the film? 

There were many challenges in filming and editing the film. The footage in Syria and Libya was challenging because it was in conflict zones and also because the cinematographers – Ross, Rachel and Ross filming PeterJim – were working as one-man bands there. Editing the film was a Herculean task for our intrepid editor David Teague and our associate editor Jamie Boyle, because we had over 350 hours of shot footage (not to mention dozens of hours of archival footage) in multiple languages and shot in different formats. So honing this material into a dramatic and emotionally resonant 89 minutes was not for the faint of heart. Finally, all of us (including Ross, Katy and all the E-TEAM members) had babies during the making the film, so that created an additional logistical challenge!

Wow! Congratulations to all of you, that’s amazing. What motivates you to work on topics like this and some of the other issues you’ve each tackled?

It’s funny, because it’s true that both of us have separately worked on films that tackle human rights issues, but we are actually not driven by topic when we choose a film to do. We were motivated to make this film because we felt compelled by these particular characters – we wanted to spend more time with them and see what made them tick, and we thought viewers might feel that way also.

 Why are you excited to screen E-TEAM in San Francisco?

Our whole film team is so excited to show this film in San Francisco. The Bay Area is really the perfect audience for this film because there are so many people interested in human rights and at the same time, there is also such strong support for independent film. It’s unique in this way. We have been looking forward to showing the film in San Francisco ever since we premiered the film at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.

As people see this film and feel motivated or draw to do something to help, what can they do?

It’s great if you can get involved in some way in supporting the efforts of people like the E-TEAM and other activists on the ground in countries that are suffering from human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has an incredibly informative website – – and that is a great place to start. All the E-TEAM members have fascinating Twitter feeds (@fredabrahams, @bouckap@AnnaNeistat,  @OleSolvang) that alert the public to the latest-breaking developments in human rights around the world and following them is a great way to stay on top of what’s happening and to go deeper in our understanding. [You can also follow the E-TEAM on Twitter at @ETeamFilm.]

Spreading the word about this work and about particular causes that interest you is a great way to play a role in increasing the international attention on human rights abuses.

Ross and Katy, thank you both so much for sharing with us and helping bring the stories of these human rights investigators to the world!



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