Advocacy documentaries are always a tricky proposition, teetering on the edge of passionate outcry and manipulative propaganda. However Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s E-Team manages to find a dubious middle ground that offers neither; a messy jumble of ideas that is so in awe with its subjects that it never really stops to consider whether this film needed to be made in the first place.
E-Team primarily follows Human Rights Watch couple (in the professional and personal sense of the word) Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang as they document the atrocities being committed by the Assad regime in Syria over the last few years, trying to determine whether crimes against humanity have taken place (because of their work, anyone vaguely following the news will know the answer). Their meticulous and stressful work on the ground in Syria is mixed in with their regular life in a Paris apartment, looking in on Anna’s first child from a previous relationship and detailing her impending pregnancy to Ole. This cloyingly obvious attempt to “humanize” these humanitarians is transparently staged and ultimately unnecessary. There’s no psychological probing of how this kind of work may affect someone’s personal life, instead we’re just left with the empty and obvious reminder that people who travel war-torn Syria also say cute things at the dinner table… wow!
The central “narrative” in Syria is mixed up by the exploits of Fred Abrahams and Peter Bouckaert in Libiya, a section of the film that adds nothing and goes nowhere, other than to remind viewers that there are other crises happening around the world. It’s a shame because Peter’s weapon-focused world-weary work is the most interesting part of the film, particularly his gruff dealing with the rebels, bluntly telling them not to engage in the same destructive tactics of the dictators they oppose. The other side of this are flashbacks (mainly using news footage) of Peter’s dealings in Kosovo during the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, an effort that eventually lead him face to face with Slobodan Milošević at his landmark trial at the Hague. Eventually a parallel narrative emerges of Kosovo providing an example of what Human Rights Watch can hope to achieve in the best case scenario while Anna and Ole’s efforts in Syria seem increasingly hopeless. Unfortunately the film meanders around for so long before it hits upon this strong unifying thread to tie everything up.
You’ll glean from the footage on the ground that the work conducted by HRW is extremely meticulous but Chevigny and Kauffman seem weirdly disinterested in that process, randomly capturing bits and pieces of their efforts and letting the viewers extrapolate what they can. What’s so frustrating about this is that the footage they have gathered is quite extraordinary, of a higher caliber than anything leaking out of Syria at the time. One stunning scene lit by nothing but the moon and burning debris of a bombed out town in Syria, has a man directly appeal to the E-Team, the camera and God to punish Assad for his crimes. We’ve seen this kind of footage before but aided by such a vivid mis en scene and clarity of the destruction elevates it to new heights.
Ultimately E-Team makes the grave mistake of simply assuming it has the right to exist and lazily slaps together what should be compelling material. My understanding of both the Syrian and Lybian conflicts is slim yet I came away knowing nothing new; I came away with little personal understanding of the E-Team themselves and I could only take the filmmakers and participants on their word that what Human Rights Watch were doing was worthwhile. Ultimately E-Team never justifies its own existence, assuming that the admirable qualities of its subjects excuses its shoddy craftsmanship. In a crowded field of more worthy documentaries we should not be excusing this kind of oversight.
E-Team is screening again on Monday June 9 at 1pm at Event Cinemas George St.