By Jordan Green (York, Yorkshire, Great Britain)
Until recently James Foley was a name which meant very little, if anything at all, to me. In the confused blitz of violence and terror that has consumed far too much of the Middle-East the name of one victim, I’m ashamed to admit, rarely imprints itself firmly in my memory. The public awareness of the numerous volatile situations in the Middle-East is drawn mostly to the tragedies of the people of those countries or our own soldiers whose lives are lost or damaged in the conflict. The dangerously brave journalists who risk their own lives to get this very information, however, are generally overlooked, a point which Jim: The James Foley Story addresses directly. James Foley, an American journalist reporting inside warzones in Syria with his friend and British journalist John Cantlie was captured and held in captivity for the next two months by an organised gang before eventually being executed in Al-Raqqah.
The first, and most important thing to be aware of before forming the tangle of preconceptions that seem to precurse any documentary that covers middle-eastern conflict as subject-matter, is that Jim: The James Foley Story is not an exposé on Syria; it is not a commentary on political discord or the tenues of the West’s relationship with the Middle-East; at its heart it is a very personal commemoration to the life of one man. His family, his friends, his colleagues, his personality – every shade of colour that made up his life. Everything else is relative to James to the extent that the conflict in Syria itself becomes almost an incidental horizon through which we are constantly aware James is moving and yet recognise it might easily have been any other – or even our own.
At a basic level the documentary is constructed from three components: archive footage taken from Foley’s work in Libya and Syria as well as home videos, interviews with Foley’s family and friends, and a small amount of reconstructed footage. The direction and tones of the narrative the film builds around Foley come directly from the interviews which often leads to tangents and digressions from the story of Foley’s capture and the events leading up to it. One such digression recounts how the captives who were held with Foley in Syria built a Risk board out of scraps and, under the unwitting noses of their captors would host raucous nights of laughter and shouting as each tried to conquer their little cardboard world. It is in these moments that Director Brian Oakes distinguishes himself as a filmmaker as every transgression is paced perfectly so that we are not simply told what something was like, we are shown. The rapport between the interviews and the archive footage allows the entire story to remain dynamic and flow where needed and linger when appropriate; a validation of Editor Aleks Gezentsvey’s skill and high-standard work.
However, the question remains that if this is not a film about the Middle-East or even specifically about Foley’s presence in the Middle-East, then what was Oakes’ precedent? After Foley’s execution Oakes mourned not only the loss of his friend but also the loss of his humanity that ensued in the way his story was sold in the media “The world knows him as an American journalist in an orange jumpsuit who was beheaded, that’s how his image was propagated around the globe. And I was uncomfortable with some of the ways it was being used, from political agendas to sensationalized articles, so as a friend I felt a responsibility to Jim and his family to tell the story behind the person. Knowing who James Foley is recontextualizes that image and takes it away from its intended purpose.”
The most truly remarkable feat of Jim being that Oakes does not only achieve the conveyance of James Foley’s persona but also gives his audience the capacity to connect emotionally with him through the recollections of his friends and family, eventually culminating in a conclusion in which we feel the pain of his loss almost as strongly as if we ourselves had known him.
But just as Oakes’ friendship with Foley provides the essential perspective by which he can share the depiction of the beloved son, the adored brother and the loyal friend, it is also irrevocably flawed by the same fondness and affection that grants its power. The undiminished light in which we regard Foley throughout the film does, at times, illuminate his persona so completely that it almost sanctifies him. The narrative of the recollections we hear sometimes strays into sheer reverence of his character, making him seem saintly – a fact which, in itself is not a negative quality of the film but when taken with its purpose to introduce us to the real James Foley as oppose to the mythology his legacy was becoming, it has the effect of tinging that reality with a dose of that same mythology that Oakes aimed to countermine. While Jim focuses several times on Foley’s friends and family members explaining his vices and even expressing their own frustration with the decision he made to return to the Middle-East (Foley had spent 44 days in captivity in Libya the year before his capture in Syria) – and while every one of these moments is essential to constructing the eventual portrait of Foley, at no point do the vices in his character seem to be anything less than the price of his superhuman altruism.
The partiality of Oakes’ perspective is only a petty quibble however, and the necessary price of the beautiful way this film allows us to meet James Foley from beyond the silver curtain. The entire production from the editing to the animated reconstructions is truly masterful. The quality of Oakes’ direction allows Jim to rise beyond the mode of a documentary designed simply to inform and become an ineffable merging of the simple things that made up a complicated man’s life. One of the European Journalists who was held captive with Foley said simply, that he was proud just to have known James. On that note I think it is a testament to the power of Brian Oakes’ filmmaking that I left the screening with a sense of the same honour as that journalist whilst never actually meeting him in the flesh.