Anna Neistat is a tenacious Russian émigré who can talk her way into any situation in the four languages she speaks fluently. She stops at nothing to get the information she wants. She is fiery and tough, a closet chain-smoker, and as stylish as she is intimidating.While detained during the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, she fell in love with Ole Solvang, a relaxed and measured Norwegian who balances his now-wife’s blazing personality with calm, even when they are in most dangerous of situations.
Peter Bouckaert doesn’t mince words. He is passionate, outspoken, obsessed with weapons and the damage they inflict. He grew up on a farm in Belgium, leaving that world to try to right the wrongs of society.
And the leader of the pack is the amiable Fred Abrahams, a Manhattan native with a dry sense of humor and an unstoppable energy who faced down the ruthless politician Slobodan Milošević 12 years ago at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal after documenting his war crimes in Kosovo.
These four individuals are not fictional characters from an action film. Together, they are the Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Team—or the “E-Team,” the first investigators on the front lines when there is suspicion of human rights abuses, oftentimes in wartorn areas.
Eight years ago, filmmakers Russ Kauffman and Katy Chevingy found themselves seated around a table with the impressive bunch, eating Mexican food and hatching the idea for their newest documentary.
“When you meet this group, you couldn’t get any more different and fascinating people. They almost didn’t seem real,” Mr. Kauffman said last week during a conference call with Ms. Chevingy. “They’re all equally passionate and equally committed to what they do. We didn’t know that at that point, but they’re unflappable in the face of all of this. They never give up.”
It would be three years after that initial dinner before the co-directors followed the E-Team to Libya and Syria, using a cinéma vérité approach to follow the investigators in the field as they collected firsthand evidence of war crimes around the globe, later presented to First World governments to incite positive action.
The 89-minute final cut, titled simply “E-Team”—screening on Sunday, October 12, and Monday, October 13, at Regal East Hampton Cinema, as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Conflict & Resolution program—compiles 2½ years of on-and-off filming that leads with footage from circa-2013 Syria as Assad-sanctioned planes dropped cluster bombs packed with scrap metal, injuring 200 civilians.
“God, please cure the regime,” a shell-shocked Syrian woman says in the film. “What have we done to deserve this? What is our crime?”
Turning the camera on the action, Mr. Kauffman—who accompanied the E-Team on a number of missions in the field, usually with less than 24 hours notice—and Ms. Chevingy do not pretend to be international human rights experts. They leave that to the professionals.
“The one thing we hoped to do was bring a more nuanced interest about what’s going on in that part of the world,” Ms. Chevingy said, “and humanize the experience of people on the ground there in a way a brief glimpse at the nightly news doesn’t. But we knew early on that we didn’t want this just to be the E-Team at work. We really wanted to get to know them as regular people. When we found a deeply personal story line to follow the action in the field—that was our ‘aha!’ moment.”
The documentary, which drew rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, wraps with a chilling afterward following the final credits: “James Foley, who served as one of the film’s cameramen, disappeared in Syria after filming was completed.”
The 40-year-old freelance photojournalist was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012, only to surface on August 19, when the terrorist group known as ISIS posted a YouTube video of his beheading. He was the first American citizen killed by the extremists.
“I met Jimmy in Libya while I was in the field. He literally walked into the frame and talked to me in the hotel in Tripoli,” Mr. Kauffman said. “He did a great job and, hopefully, this film speaks to the work he dedicated his life to. That the E-Team members dedicate their lives to.”
“E-Team” will screen on Sunday, October 12, at 1 p.m. and Monday, October 13, at 11:45 a.m. at Regal East Hampton Cinema, as part of the Films of Conflict & Resolution program during the 22nd annual Hamptons International Film Festival. Tickets are $15. The film will be available for streaming on Netflix starting Friday, October 24. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.