As Anna spoke with the translator the woman went silent. Tears streamed down her face as she grasped a photo of the sons who were just executed outside her front door. She made eye contact with the camera, her eyes sunken and lost. Then she began to weep and speak to the room. “What’s the point of writing? What’s the point of talking? I swear, if we could save them, our tears would fill gallons. Our tears could fill gallons and form a river.”
Under international law, it is illegal for a state to intentionally target civilian populations in the midst of a conflict. This remains true whether the conflict is international or intrastate in nature. Thus, under no circumstance is it ever legal to target non-combatants - civilians. When accusations are made that such crimes are occurring, investigators must be sent in to interview victims and witnesses, piece together the story, and hopefully use their findings to assist in the the prosecution of those perpetrating the war crimes. The Human Rights Watch Emergencies Team is often first on the scene to conduct these investigations. E-Team gives us a glimpse into the lives and work of those very human rights investigators.
As the first documentary film crew granted access to the Emergencies Team, directors Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman knew they had an amazing opportunity on their hands. No one had ever before been given such freedom to tell the real story of this small group of human rights investigators. The film follows four investigators, Anna Neistat, Ole Solvang, Peter Boukaert and Fred Abrahams as they make their way into war-torn regions to investigate potential human rights abuses.
Chevigny and Kauffman used their access to the E-Team to shine a light not only on the work these investigators do, but on the victims and on the human rights abuses themselves. Their goal was to make human rights real, make it tangible for those who so often only see it as some distant concept. As Chevigny explained, “part of what we were hoping to do as a film, by getting very specific about a handful of individuals and a couple of places in a couple of countries, is that we were trying to really make it clear that on the ground human rights means something very concrete, very graphic. Not just something that’s an abstraction that bureaucrats talk about in big glass buildings.”
The film arguably achieves this goal as it brings the viewer into the lives of these characters - from the investigator to the victim. It brings their humanity to the forefront. The storylines center on the conflicts in Syria and Libya. As Chevigny told me in a phone call, “We did not choose Syria and Libya. Syria and Libya chose us because Syria and Libya chose the E-Team.” In the wake of the Arab Spring, both countries were in a volatile state with ongoing reports of human rights abuses on the ground. It was the E-Team's job to investigate.
"War is hell. Always. War is always bad. This is not our role to make this insightful statement. Our role is to show what exactly happened in this particular village and why we think this is a violation of international law." - Anna Neisat (NETFLIX)
Investigating Syria & Lybia
Within the film, two vignettes in particular illustrated both the intensity of the E-team's job as well as the crucial role they play within the broader human rights regime: a bombing in Azaz, Syria and a massacre in Libya. These two stories depict the many aspects of an investigators role in conflict. The information they collect not only informs international NGOs and news media, but quite often serves as a resource for states and international bodies. The E-Team is an essential resource for all of these groups in the fight against war crimes and human rights violations.
In 2011, the E-Team made their way into Libya to investigate a mass slaughter by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Tripoli. Rumor had it this massacre happened amidst Gadaffi’s escape from the region as his rule over Libya fell to rebel forces. It is in the middle of this investigation that we learn a bit more about the process of the team's investigations and the care they take to get down to the truth. Investigator Peter Boukaert walks through the crime scene with a group of journalists as he explains not only the situation but also how the team verifies the information it collects.
Shift over to Syria, and we find the team investigating crimes against civilians ostensibly perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. At the time there were reports of illegal detention of civilians, torture and targeted killings of civilians. Neistat explained, "people are being killed when they go out to protest, and that's not to mention thousands of people have been detained and tortured - and all of that just needs to stop." The immediacy of the team's reporting can often mean the difference between continued war crimes and international intervention to bring them to a halt.
The E-Team arrived in Azaz just hours after the bombing. They maneuvered their way through the ruins, interviewing anyone they could find, attempting to corroborate stories. Standing among rubble, a local man named Ayman agreed to speak with the E-Team. He stood tense and stoic as he began to detail the bombings for the investigators. A quiet anger came over him as he explained, “We saw a military plane. Military. It’s meant to fight another country, not take our family. So many kids killed today. Babies. Some only a few months old....what were they looking for? Guns? There are none! I lost my brother, my sister and my step-mother today.”
Telling the Human Story
In speaking with Chevigny and Kauffman, both were incredibly passionate about using these stories - of the investigators and those the victims and witnesses they spoke with - to really bring the audience up close and personal with the human story of human rights. They really wanted those outside the atrocities discourse community to understand human rights on a more intimate level. It was for this reason that the film followed the E-Team not just through war zones, but also through their daily lives as parents, spouses, friends.
It was important to the directors to find a way to allow audiences to see all sides, the whole human experience. Kauffman told me over the phone, “Katy and I loved spending time at home with [the E-Team] because they’re just normal people at home. They’re cooking, they’re cleaning, they’re telling their kids to do homework. And in the midst of all this ordinary family life they’re on the phone trying to stop air strikes in Syria while they’re cooking dinner.”
Throughout the film, you find yourself asking how these people can continue to do this work. How do they keep going back to these war zones, and how to they keep seeing such horrific scenes? Peter Boukaert put it nicely as he explained, "It's about fighting back against bad people, and that in itself gives you a rush. It's nice to be on the right side and it's nice to fight back. There's a certain level of satisfaction with fucking with bad people."
E-Team is a Netflix Original, and currently available online
DOCNYC, Human Rights, Syria, Libya