'Jim: The James Foley Story': Remembering and Not Knowing

Cynthia Fuchs

Jim: The James Foley Story makes you aware of the need for more storytelling and more visibility, more open doors and more lessons shared.

Jim: The James Foley Story

Director: Brian Oakes
Cast: Diane Foley, John Foley, John Foley Jr., Michael Foley, Mark Foley, Katie Foley, Nicole Tung, Daniel Rye Ottosen, Manu Brabo, Zac Baillie, Clare Gillis
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2015
US date: 2016-02-06 (HBO)
"Even after months at the frontlines, Jim had trouble accepting the need to take a rest -- he was haunted by the civilians, doctors, fighters, and families he had met. He wondered what was becoming of them, he wanted to keep working now that I too had shown up, along with the many others he'd been working with all that summer."

-- Clare Morgana Gillis

"And then he came back to my house, and he told, me, 'John, I'm thinking about going to Libya.'" John Foley here looks sideways at the camera and shakes his head. "I'm like, 'Jim, that's a horrible idea, absolutely a horrible idea'".

The camera cuts from James Foley's brother, seated in a nice home with white walls, big window, and a beautifully aged blond-wood table, to footage of protestors surrounded by flames, running from the careening handheld camera, then back to John. "Why would you put your life in danger?" he continues, "We're dropping bombs over there. God forbid if you go over there and we accidentally kill you."

Looking back on this moment in 2011, John raises all kinds of not-quite-spoken questions, from the US roles in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East to the risks embodied and embraced by those who might seek to reveal these roles, or at least examine the consequences. Coming near the start of the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, John's memory is personal but also performative. Jim's brother will go on to describe the lesson he's learned from Jim's capture and release in Libya, and then his capture just a year later in Syria, followed by his decapitation by ISIS. That lesson is especially painful, given what happened to Foley, and it's plainly moral: as much as John joked with his brother that he need to get a job and plan for a future, Jim was telling him, in so many words, "You need to look outside of yourself, John, it's not about physical or monetary things, it's about who you act, it's who you teach, who you mentor, who's going to remember you, what are they going to remember about you?"

Brian Oakes' film -- now on HBO -- insists on this lesson, on the sacrifice made by Foley and other journalists in order to make visible what goes on around the world. While the film never doesn't blame the kidnappers and killers, they remain unnamed and removed from the James Foley Story, which keeps its sights on his life, his ideals, and his effect on any number of people, from his parents to his siblings to his fellow photojournalists, and most especially, his fellow prisoners. All interview subjects are identified by first name only, along with their relationship to Foley, underscoring the film's focus on how Foley inspired others personally, their versions of his journey from Teach for America to conflict journalism.

The structure is a function of Foley's absence, of course. Even as the film offers archival footage of Foley describing his sense of mission ("I can go in and get those shots, but unless I have the moral courage to challenge authority, to write about things that are gonna maybe have reprisals on my career, if I don't have that moral courage, we don't have journalism"), it briefly notes the seduction of war zone reporting. Famously narrated by any number of soldiers and reporters, from Michael Herr and Dexter Filkins to Michael Tucker and Sebastian Junger, this seduction is at once frightening (a "horrible idea") and irresistible. Foley's friend Clare Morgana Gillis recalls, "It seemed like he started thinking about going to Syria and by the time he mentioned it, he'd already decided".

Coming after he was imprisoned and released in Libya, that decision alarms his family and friends. Once he takes it, and once he’s taken in Syria, the film necessarily changes direction. Jim's mother Diane and his publisher at the Global Post, Phil Balboni, recall their efforts to make the kidnapping public, against instructions by the US government to "keep quiet". Even so, they had precious little information to disclose, and found their efforts frustrated by both the kidnappers and the US government (Diane compares the US with France, which has a Hostage Crisis Unit to inform families of changing statuses and provide some measure of solace). Jim's brother Michael notes immediately the difference between this kidnapping and the one in Libya. "There was a lot of misinformation, it was not the same," he says. "It was a mystery right out of a crime show, we were trying to piece together bits of information".

The film gestures toward this lack of information with its choice of imagery during its second half (along with a sad piano soundtrack that's both muted and overused). People back home, formally arranged in their kitchens and living rooms, express their sense of loss and frustration. European journalists, including Didier Francois and Daniel Rye Ottosen, who were once imprisoned with Foley, now appear in shadowy, not-so-well-defined spaces as they describe their experiences being tortured, hearing people killed, and appreciating Jim's humility and generosity. The film goes on to illustrate their memories, not with footage but with dramatic reenactments, framed to obscure faces, instead showing barred windows and closed doors, the backs of kneeling figures, the camera hovering above.

These carefully composed frames are at once distressing and distracting, reminding you of what you can't imagine, even with the journalists' accounts. Explicit imagery or documentation has its own deleterious effects, of course: Foley's brothers remember how difficult it was when the ISIS video was visible everywhere, and the film hardly needs to revisit it. The film does include a portion where Foley reads from a script, indicting his brother John's participation in US military aggression, by dint of his membership in the Air Force. John notes the pain of this moment, of feeling any kind of guilt, because he knew his brother didn't mean it.

Still, as you hear Foley's voice, strained and knowing what's to come, you're struck too by the competing stories in this one story, in James Foley's story. No matter how false and ugly ISIS's story might be, it has effects, just as official US stories have effects. That personal stories become entangled in these others, so much louder and more violent and overbearing than any individual's can be, you're struck by the need for more: more storytelling and more visibility, more doors opened and more lessons shared.






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