Hidden between the likes of “Narcos” and “Orange is the New Black” is one critically acclaimed Netflix film that needs more attention: “E-Team.” Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny’s gripping 2014 documentary shines light on not only the ongoing human rights violations in Syria and Libya, but also on those who risk their lives to investigate and report them. Simultaneously exhilarating, humorous, and moving, “E-Team” delivers a starkly honest story that promises be remembered.
The film opens with a stark scene in a Syrian village where government planes had just dropped cluster bombs, racking up a death toll of some 200 civilians. Human Rights Watch Emergencies Team members Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang are on the ground recording testimonies of distraught and terrified villagers as the sound of explosions continue to erupt in the background - immediately exhibiting the severity of their jobs. A later scene follows the couple as they drive through Turkey in the middle of night only to jump out, hop barbed wire fences, and urgently begin to run to sneak into Syrian territory. Upon success, you here Ole exclaim, “We’re in Syria! We’re Safe!,” demonstrating the E-Team’s enduring charm and humor amidst their high-risk circumstances.
Such juxtapositions remain prominent throughout. One scene the team members are sifting through rubble to collect evidence, and in the next Ole is playing the piano serenading Anna in their sophisticated Paris apartment. Ole and Anna, who are engaged and together raise Anna’s 12 year old son, are evidently the main characters of the film. Of equal merit and interest are the two other E-team members, Fred Abrahams and Peter Bouckaert. Fred, based in Berlin, has been doing field work in crisis situation since Kosovo and went on to play a large role in extraditing Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević for war crimes in 2001. Fred travels with Peter, a highly-qualified weapons expert, to Libya in hopes of collecting evidence that can be later used against the Gaddafi regime. On their way, Peter pokes fun at Fred for moseying around at the airport and treating himself to a large selection of snacks.
Kauffman and Chevigny have been criticized for perhaps focusing too much on Anna and Ole’s marriage over politically relevant issues. But the intimate details we gleam of the E-Team’s home lives and relationships serve to humanize them. They all live privileged lives, and at times even come off as glamorous world-travelers, yet, we also see their daily battles with the grim realities of their job and the disheartening emotions that come with it. It is obvious that the E-Team carries the stories they encounter in their fieldwork with them home. Despite their frequent frustration and discouragement, all members remain dedicated and realistically hopeful, for Human Rights Watch does have the power to make a difference.
Having faced Slobodan Milošević in the International Criminal Court, Fred speaks of what it felt like to finally utilize his reports and testimonies from Kosovo to help bring justice. He goes on to admit that he knows they’re not going to stop any wars, but that for him it is about “making the war a bit more tolerable for the people stuck in it.” Fred truly believes it is in darkness that abuse takes place, thus it is invaluable to keep investigating, keep reporting to the world, and keep bringing atrocities to light -- even if that is all they do.
Anna and Ole find pride and hope in the fact their report confirming that Assad was behind chemical attacks on civilians influenced the action of governments in the UN Security Council. Inciting international response and sanctions on Assad for his use of chemical weapons is something to be proud of, but the couple can’t pretend that it will help the numerous civilians still being killed by conventional weapons. Anna, reflecting on the inevitable heartache that comes with the job, gives the profound reason that inspires her to keep going: “You really go from hope to despair, to hope back to despair, and then you meet somebody on the ground, a witness, a victim, an incredible activist, and you feel that if they haven’t given up, how on Earth do you have the right to give up on them?” With this, we must remember the heart and ultimate reason for this documentary: the victims of human rights violations.
While “E-Team”’s premise is to provide insight into the lives of the emergency team members, it is the scenes of the victims’ crying, retelling the atrocities they suffered or searching through the rubble of their now destroyed home that hit the hardest.
One Syrian man, who lost his brother, sister, and step-brother the same day in a military bombing, defiantly looks into the camera and begs why his own nation’s leader would do this.
Another mother who’s three sons were murdered in her own home asks through tears, “What’s the point of talking?” While she may not have saw reason in that moment, her talking and sharing her experience is important for others around the world to see and hear. Only when we are aware and informed are we able to take or inspire action, and it is this notion that underlies Human Rights Watch ideology and perseverance. “E-Team” is certainly a valuable documentary for showcasing the work of the Emergencies Team, but perhaps more so for expanding the audience that Human Rights Watch can reach and informing a larger public of the brutalities committed at the hands of dictators on innocent people.