Jim: The James Foley Story (2016)
Dir: Brian Oakes
I think one of the signs of a good documentary is getting you interested in a subject or caring about a person you knew little or nothing about beforehand. On that criteria and many others, this is an excellent documentary.
Journalist James Foley was captured in Syria in 2012 and was eventually executed by ISIS. This documentary tells his story with extensive use of conflict footage and interviews with friends and family.
We know the outcome right from the start, in fact when it aired on the BBC in the U.K. the title in the listings was ‘Executed by ISIS: The James Foley Story’. The documentary starts with a note that the film will not show the death of James Foley, which might seem an odd decision or at least an interesting way to preface the film. As I watched, getting to know about this man I hadn’t really heard of before, warmly spoken of by his friends and family, I realised how relieved I was that I didn’t have to worry that his death would be shown. I felt like if I hadn’t known for sure it wasn’t going to be shown, I would’ve expected it and might have turned the film off so I wouldn’t have to see such a thing.
Told as much with James Foley’s own words and images as possible, the film makes extensive use of multiple sources and media in telling the story as visually as possible. Clips of family home movies, footage from other conflict journalists, news and archive footage, as well as filmed interviews and even re-enactments, are all brought together in mostly chronological order with a very logical development of themes that’s clear and easy to follow. These elements are edited in perfectly to illustrate what people are talking about, while very rarely labelled with their sources they don’t really need much more explanation than what is or just has been said. There are occasional key dates are shown on screen to help place events in time, at one point the months roll over for nearly a year to show how much time passed with no progress, small effective edits like this all work together to present the story in a very powerful and brilliantly visual way that’s incredibly informative but also very personal as so much is from friends and family.
His family are interviewed at great length and they are remarkably composed and articulate for the most part, especially to start with. I wanted to see a little more emotion as it seemed almost cold at times, then as the story developed the cracks in their voices did too, a few tears began to roll and it was the right time for it, by then I was invested, they had told Jim’s story so well. It’s such an interesting story too, as he was in fact abducted twice. Having a previous experience of being taken hostage yet successfully released meant that he was able to speak about it afterwards which we hear, while the film and family are able to reflect on those sentiments with application to the second abduction. It also means they can contrast the two experiences, how things felt and developed differently as well as the eventual outcomes. I think this adds an extra level of uniqueness to Jim’s story that makes it such an excellent documentary subject.
Filmmaker Brian Oakes clearly has a rapport with the family, the interviews feel natural and at ease, very conversational even though we only get the subjects dialogue and don’t hear him. I was wondering how they were speaking in such a relaxed way, then I noticed that Jim’s dad calls him by name directly a couple of times and then said “you know Jim as well as I do”. It was at that point I realised (and have since checked and confirmed) that the director Brian Oakes was a friend of Jim and knows the family personally. It immediately explains why these people who would have been interviewed so much already, seem so at ease talking at length with him. Rather than being yet another interview with someone looking for an angle on the story, this is more a conversation with a family friend about someone they both cared about. It comes across strongly and helps to make the film feel more like the family participated willingly on their own terms, interviewed once more about these events for a definitive account.
There are also interviews with colleagues, one in particular seems to have been a very close friend and expresses regret over not being there, even how little superstitions make her wonder if things could have turned out differently. Some are able to speak about times they went on trips for their work with Jim, explaining both their own and his motivation for being in such dangerous situations. Then once the film has gotten to the point of Jim’s capture, it shifts focus from the family and colleagues, to interviews with other hostages and develops into a fascinating insight on captivity with the journalists held with Jim. They are able to tell firsthand what he was going through, not just ‘experts’ talking in general terms or about other cases, they speak with true insight from being in the room with him. Fellow captives speak so fondly of him that you really get a strong sense of what he was like as well as the situation they were in. This is augmented a bit by the use of brief re-enacted shots that depict the room they were held in as well as other things being described, though these parts are not overused or lengthy they add to the impact of the descriptions.
There are no ‘experts’ interviewed, just people who knew Jim personally and the film doesn’t deal in hypotheticals of what may have happened to him, in fact they point out that all intelligence they were getting was in fact way off, so rather than trying to fill in the blanks, we just get people speaking from their own point of view about what they knew or how it affected them. I also felt that it did well to come across as balanced as it does, while acknowledging certain failures on the parts of diplomats and intelligence agencies, it stops short of pointing a finger in any specific directions, showing that the situation was horribly complex.
The only thing I thought the film could have done better was in regards to Jim’s fellow captor John Cantlie who is spoken of but not in much detail. Cantlie also had experience of being held captive briefly once before, however though abducted along with Jim he’s still believed to be in captivity. It’s odd that the documentary doesn’t take a moment or two to discuss him a little more, I know it’s James Foley’s story in focus but surely (unless there are safety concerns which are not stated) it needs a little more mention of Cantlie just to highlight his ongoing situation.
This is an excellent documentary as James Foley’s story is a fascinating one that was worth telling and is done full justice in this way. More importantly it also tells the wider story as James seemingly would’ve wanted. It’s not all about him but rather it’s about the conflicts, the terrorist organisations and an insightful look captivity and the effects of abduction on the hostages and their families.
‘Jim: The James Foley Story’ has been aired on television in some places and is available to rent and buy online. It is a superb film that I enjoyed far more than the subject suggested I would. I realise that in writing this review I have referred to him as ‘Jim’ a lot, a testament to how personal this documentary feels and how well it profiles its subject. Enlightening, ultimately uplifting and without doubt worth a watch.